Adam Ziegler shares some of the top trends he’s observed in the last year working with leading law firms and corporate legal departments.
I’m a true believer in the potential for technology to improve legal work and enhance legal services. About a year ago, I joined the BRYTER team, where I lead Solutions Architecture, Sales Engineering, and Customer Success in the US.
To mark my first year at BRYTER, I’d like to share some of the key things I’ve noticed while leading BRYTER’s efforts to help law firm professionals in the U.S. build their own digital tools.
But first, a little bit of background on me: Before I joined BRYTER, I spent 12+ years serving clients in large and small firms, as paralegal, associate and partner, and then spent 10+ years building law-related software through my own startup and as the director of the Library Innovation Lab at Harvard Law School, where we created case.law, perma.cc and opencasebook.org. I also worked closely with students exploring legal tech as a career and taught upper-level law students the fundamentals of computer programming.
It’s safe to say I’m committed to the benefits of practicing law through technology and have had the opportunity over the years to see this field rapidly evolve, perhaps more so than ever in the last year, and I’m excited to share what I’ve seen with you.
So here are 10 key things I’ve observed in my first year at BRYTER.
1. Law firms are building digital tools
Most firms are not struggling with the question of whether to build their own internal and external digital tools. They’re grappling instead with questions of execution. They’re figuring out how to efficiently create reliable software that is maintainable, scalable, and valuable.
A few of my favorite examples of law firms’ digital tools that are already out there:
- Troutman Pepper automated annual board reporting for clients, saving time for their lawyers and providing a valuable, streamlined service.
- Addleshaw Goddard solved a massive LIBOR repapering challenge for their client Virgin Money.
- Simmons & Simmons launched a tool called “ESG Conquest” to guide asset managers through an assessment and provide an instant gap analysis.
- Fieldfisher launched a digital tool to help clients align with new standard contractual clauses.
2. Law firms are just starting to see the value of building digital tools
Although most firms have started to build their own digital tools, we’re at the very early stages of firms understanding how valuable this can be.
I see firms’ building activities across a spectrum that includes marketing tools, internal automation tools, lawyer efficiency tools, client collaboration tools, and revenue-generating tools. Generally speaking, firms get started with marketing or internal tools and then evolve in the direction of revenue-generating client service tools. Currently, most firms are more comfortable talking about pursuing marketing and internal tools than creating client service tools.
This is a natural place to begin, but it speaks to the opportunity ahead. Firms are just starting to discover that clients will pay for digital tools that help them prevent and solve legal problems. In fact, clients are starting to expect, and even demand digital solutions from firms. A 2022 Wolters Kluwer survey found that 91% of corporate legal departments say it will be important to have a law firm that fully leverages technology.
Firms are discovering they can build and deliver these tools, and that doing so is a natural – if unfamiliar – extension of both the attorney-client relationship and the business of practicing law. And perhaps most importantly, it’s profitable work. In the same Wolters Kluwer survey, 63% of technology leading law firms reported their profitability increased over the past year – more than any other firms.
3. Law firms are learning how to quickly build good digital tools
For law firms, building digital tools only makes sense if you can do it quickly and reliably at scale. If it takes six-plus months and six-plus digits to create a buggy application that demands constant maintenance by a professional developer, it will be difficult to realize the value of creating digital tools. But if building a good digital tool takes about the same time as writing a good brief or client memo or drafting a complex contract, the potential value is evident.
Law firms are starting to learn how to quickly build digital tools through the combination of the right software, the right personnel, and the right approach. When firms have these key elements in place, the results are impressive.
One of the firms that has embraced building digital tools is Troutman Pepper. When we spoke with their Director of Innovation Solutions Andrew Medeiros about quickly building valuable solutions, he said, “We evaluated a number of automation tools, and BRYTER was the only one that enables legal analysts and engineers to quickly learn and build products. You can build, test and launch digital applications easier and faster with BRYTER because it is built specifically with the legal engineer in mind. I could do similar things with other software after spending five years getting to know a platform. But now, I need someone to quickly get up to speed and deliver that same quantity and quality of work. BRYTER allows someone to scale to that point within a day or two.”
4. Legal engineering doesn’t require a law degree or hard programming skills
Law firms and legal departments ask me all the time: “Who should we have building these digital tools?” While it’s true that almost anyone can learn to use software like BRYTER to build good digital tools, the reality is that the most effective builders are those that combine an understanding of law and legal services with an understanding of software and software development. That combination – which we think of as legal engineering – is the sweet spot.
Firms that prioritize recruiting, developing, and empowering people with these skillsets are the ones that are best positioned to distinguish themselves.
It’s important, however, not to confuse legal engineering with the need to possess a law degree or hard programming skills. Being an effective legal engineer requires neither. What’s most important is that you appreciate what lawyers do and how they serve clients, while also understanding the basic principles of software development.
5. Early-career lawyers have a very different relationship to technology than later-career lawyers
This one probably goes without saying, but it’s an important thing to highlight for those interested in the future of legal services. If you began your career in the legal field before email became ubiquitous in the 90s, your relationship with technology is fundamentally different from those entering the profession now.
Most law schools now have popular legal technology initiatives and student groups; many schools offer programming classes to their students, and many students come into law school with significant hands-on technical training. For this generation of early-career lawyers, “building” your own technology is far from novel. This trend is not going away.
6. Corporate clients want digital solutions from their law firms, in addition to expert advice and seasoned advocacy
I’ve personally observed that corporate legal departments are very intrigued by the potential for law firms to provide digital legal services that can have routine operational impact at scale, with clear avenues for escalation and more consultative service when a situation is non-routine. This can take many forms, but the benefits to law firms are obvious: stronger client relationships; better client service; new forms of revenue.
Unfortunately, many lawyers have been conditioned to believe that digital tools and expert consultation are somehow mutually exclusive. The reality is they complement each other well in service of every law firm’s ultimate goal: to help clients prevent and solve legal problems.
7. Legacy systems and thinking are holding law firms back
One of the most frustrating things I’ve observed among some law firms is a tendency to evaluate new technology strictly through the lens of old technology. In these situations, it’s common to hear things like, “We looked into that a few years ago and it wasn’t for us” or “Can you do [insert capability] the same way that our current system does [insert capability]?”
Fundamentally, evaluating new technology is about pursuing a future state that is better than your current state in the areas that matter most to you or your organization. In legal technology, this requires an approach I think of as “open-minded skepticism”: the willingness to listen and imagine the better future state coupled with the discipline to try, test, and prove that a given technology can deliver that future state.
When a firm anchors to past technology and experiences, it ignores how rapidly technology is advancing and limits the opportunity to discover a better future state.
8. Law firms do not yet fully appreciate the value of an internal team of builders
This one’s for my fellow legal engineers: Most law firms do not take full advantage of their internal teams of builders. These teams can be powerful engines of growth, profitability, improvement, distinction, and enthusiasm. But all too often, they struggle to find relevance and influence within the firm and are left instead to work on the fringes of the firm’s strategy on projects with modest impact.
9. Experimentation, prototyping, and continuous improvement are under-emphasized within law firms
Some law firms — even those with large innovation teams — need help doing the work of innovation. This takes many forms. Firms need help generating ideas, making ideas tangible, distinguishing between good and bad ideas, managing projects efficiently, launching things, and then evaluating and improving the things they’ve launched.
10. Legal tech is currently dominated by vendors; in the future, it will be dominated by law firms
I work for a technology company, but our mission is very different than that of other vendors. We put the development of legal software in the hands of the legal experts — the law firms. We believe that technology is simply a natural extension of legal work.
In the same way that email accelerated communication and business processes 30 years ago, custom-built software solutions will vastly improve the delivery of legal services, and in many cases, will become the norm for how those services are delivered. And that shift will happen sooner than you think; at many of the firms we’re working with, it is already underway.