Developing Technology In-house

This article is an extract from the Lawyers and Robots whitepaper. Click here to download the whitepaper.

We talk to Jimmy Vestbirk, founder of Legal Geek and Richard Seabrook, managing director of Neota Logic on the benefits and detractors of investing into building your own technology.

The spread of technology into modern life and business has brought with it a vocabulary that can seem like it is used more frequently than it is understood. Each equipped with their own lustre, ideas such as ‘disrupt’ and ‘innovate’, or methods such as ‘fail-fast’, have become commonplace, now dropped with an eager noise for technological readiness that can easily outstrip the actual commitment.

In-house technology is just one concept that seems to hold such sway, and the notion of bespoke technology design, developed at close proximity to those who need it, has an obvious appeal. There are a range of logical answers for why technology development is brought in-house; solutions tailored to specific needs, hidden from the eyes of potential competitors, suited to the fine-tuning of a firm’s systems so that it operates with utmost efficiency. There was something very complete-sounding about the statement from artificial intelligence due-diligence company, Luminance, when announcing that their software ‘has been trained to think like a lawyer’.

With firms likely to remain guarded on the minutiae of their in-house development, there will be some guesswork in establishing the real ramifications of what that sort of ‘training’ actually consists of. From a purely technological perspective there’s a surprisingly strong argument against in-house development altogether, and certainly against the idea of it as a panacea for the sometimes slow pace of development in LawTech.

Substance above style

Challenging this received wisdom of in-house as an unalloyed good, it is not hard to find a range of voices from the Tech world. Jimmy Vestbirk is the founder of LawTech community, Legal Geek, which has convened hackathons of coders and conferences of experts, brought together to shed light on how law and technology can best meld.

Vestbirk says:

‘It is interesting to see law firms reacting to change by developing their own software. From our perspective, it often seems like they might be better placed to allow technologists to develop software rather than attempting to go it alone. If you look at large institutions, in-house efforts can often run over budget and be slow in delivery.’

None of this is to suggest that big organisations are incompatible with targeted, responsive interventions by the Tech community. Vestbirk points out Ernst and Young and PricewaterhouseCoopers are being perceived to offer better starting points on partnership, often working from a ‘blank sheet of paper’ with regard to developers. Big law firms, meanwhile, can come with a reputation for creating innovation boards consisting of senior partners who may not themselves be the right people to drive innovation.

‘The people who are best placed in innovation are often those able to work autonomous of the board,’ says Vestbirk of the organisational culture in law. ‘Firms are starting to get it right, with non-legal people on their boards and making decisions, but we still see few firms with—for example—teams of coders working within them.

‘The financial sector, and FinTech, offers an example of an industry that has provided a safe environment for innovation and is now benefiting from that relationship. It is hard to attract good quality developers, and—relative to LawTech—FinTech is still seen as the newer and sexier destination for developers to choose to work in.’

However plain spoken the advice, the prognosis is obviously rooted in a concern for the legal industry and its ability to make good use of the technology now becoming available.

‘Lawyers have an affection for rank and status,’ adds Vestbirk. ‘This is sometimes helpful, but what it can leave the industry ill-suited to dealing with is a degree of failure. A philosophical outlook on failure is a key ingredient in the process of innovation.’

‘Tech often begins with a start-up lens, and where law firms are too heavily invested in the process they can restrict it in ways that are stifling. The biggest innovation required in LawTech is cultural, not technological, with a recognition that technology is to improve the lives of lawyers, not replace them.’

The biggest innovation required in LawTech is cultural, not technological, with a recognition that technology is to improve the lives of lawyers, not replace them.

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