Automation in Law – what is the status quo?

Building blocks

Automation in the law still lags behind its potential, while other industries demonstrate impressive advancements through automation.

Digital transformation efforts in the legal industry are maturing and the focus is now on achieving practical, tangible and measurable outcomes. As machine learning-based “AI” tools are still limited in their abilities and scope, digital transformation in the legal domain has naturally gravitated toward legal automation.

Even though this concept seems familiar from other industries, automation in the legal field is still largely uncharted territory. Apart from document automation solutions such as ContractExpress, HotDocs or LawLift, which have been around for quite some time, the legal value delivery chain is still mostly manual, i.e. not automated.

There are many reasons why the legal industry is lagging behind other industries when it comes to embracing automation:

  • Current business models focus on “billable hours” and “fully engaged” teams. In these business models, there is often little interest in becoming more efficient through automation.
  • Many lawyers are still unaware of how automation could look in their respective fields and how it can be operationalized. Lawyers are quick in labeling their work as “bespoke” or “too complex”.
  • There are not many “automation tools” in the market that cater to the specific needs of law firms and/or legal departments.
  • Often it is not easy to spot the areas, workflows, and processes that are suitable for automation.

In a nutshell: the machine-execution of legal tasks, processes, and workflows, in part or entirety.

The term “Legal Automation” encompasses the design, management, execution, and automation of legal tasks, workflows, processes, and decision-making, based on pre-defined rules.

Automating legal work allows firms, corporates, as well as any other organization where lawyers work, to streamline, accelerate, manage and measure legal and legal-related work. By using legal workflow automation, processes, and tasks, significant improvements can be made in:

  • Efficiency
  • Productivity
  • Accuracy
  • Audibility
  • Job Satisfaction

To varying degrees, all legal areas include repetitive, “standardizable” legal inquiries and assessments that are ripe for automation. For bespoke work, as well as highly unique or complex cases, automation may not always be feasible. However, a large part of legal work is prone to standardization and thus automation. The ratio between bespoke and standardizable legal work is often wrongly estimated, erring on the side of the uniqueness and complexity of the task at hand.

In fact, complex tasks also consist of many smaller sub-tasks where automation can be implemented. Consider the end-to-end process of manufacturing a car; a very complex process, which cannot be automated in its entirety, especially when it comes to planning, testing, quality, strategy, as well as aspects of the manufacturing process itself. The same applies to legal tasks.

The goal is not to automate 100% of a legal task, but rather to achieve efficiency gains however possible.

Legal automation software — in its myriad forms — enables professionals in the legal field to build, model, and execute, decision- and process-based logic. From a technical perspective, legal automation software generates an output (documents, emails, data sets, etc.) from an input layer.

Legal automation is possible in all legal areas. However, some areas of law are more suited to automation than others; these areas of law often include the following characteristics:

  • Clearly defined (legal) rules and processes
  • The complexity of the underlying logic is not too complex
  • Question and problems that routinely and often recur
  • Low level of fact-finding

Think big, but start small

A new approach to corporate legal automation is to start “small” and in a focused manner. This means identifying the legal tasks that recur most often and to begin strategically adding layers of automation to these tasks. By achieving success in legal automation in one area, it will be easier to branch out and being automating in other areas.

The area of legal automation is underdeveloped. A recent study shows that less than 4% of Top100 UK law firms have already established automation software – it’s time to up the game.

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