Nobody in Legal Tech Knows Anything About Practicing Law

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Well, statistically nobody. According to a survey done by case management software company Smokeball, only 9% of legal tech employees have a legal education. When it comes to career background, only 18% of employees come from the legal industry in general. The survey doesn’t specify how many of the 9% of employees with a legal education had passed a bar exam or practiced law for any amount of time, or were actually in-house counsel and not associated with product development.

Maybe this low percentage is the root cause of the legal tech industry’s obsession with solving all the wrong problems, or maybe 9% is a typical percentage of ex-professionals to have on staff for companies trying to provide tech solutions to that industry. After all, an internet legal marketing or SEO company wouldn’t need a large percentage of their staff to have legal experience. But when it comes to actually writing software that serves attorneys in a niche area of practice, attorneys would want to know the people who made the software understand their practice before trying to sell them a new way of doing it.

The tech industry’s mantra of “disrupt all the industries” hasn’t yet had a cataclysmic effect on the legal industry the way Uber is disrupting the taxi industry. The legal industry is fundamentally different from industries like retail stores or taxi companies, mainly in that “legal services” is a fundamentally broad and nebulous concept that can be different state-to-state, county-to-county, city-to-city. The legal industry’s rule books (yes, there is more than one rule book) aren’t made by the free market—they’re made by courts, legislators or lobbyists, anti-competitive bar associations, city councils, and so forth. The tech industry has a very hard time understanding that just because they make something that they think is neat or incorporates bitcoin in some way, that doesn’t mean those in a position of power, like judges, “will have to accept it [because] it’s mathematic.

This is not to say that the tech industry is fundamentally incapable of understanding the wants and needs of both lawyers and people in need of legal services. The Smokeball survey predicts a trend toward a more even balance of tech and legal backgrounds in the legal tech industry. Perhaps we will start to see more industry crossover between lawyers and programmers, but until then we may be stuck with more stuff neither lawyers nor their clients want or need.

Featured image: “Stressed business woman in the office.” from Shutterstock.

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  • EarlyMedievalSerf

    You’ve got it backwards. Lawyers are Luddites when it comes to technology. I still see dozens of attorneys daily walk around with an attorney date book hand writing their court dates into a black book provided for $30 by the local bar association. My legal management software looks like it’s from 1995 and it’s the most updated version. Every computer in former law firm still runs XP on their computer, and that’s AFTER hiring a very expensive consulting firm to upgrade the system. Oh, they put the servers onto a rack – i’m serious – and locked them in a cage with a $5 master lock. This is for a mid sized firm handing large corporate accounts. Most law firms websites haven’t been updated in years. I once had an interviewing partner tell me that he wanted to stop paying for the website because it didn’t bring in new business. How many real estate/probate/solo lawyers have you met that use gmail or yahoo or even worse, AOL for their email address? It’s awful, just this morning I got an spoofed email from yahoo account belonging to a lawyer on a case I worked with 4 years ago. How many lawyers don’t have voicemail but instead have some 60 year old secretary take messages by hand. Seriously? Seriously? Younger lawyers are only marginally better, sure they use clio and dropbox but where’s the large scale document automation – nearly nonexistent or hardly time saving. The foreclosure mills in my area paid paralegals (and that’s a stretch to say that they were paralegals) $10.50 per hour to populate data fields by hand to prepare motions for summary judgment and foreclosure complaints. And they were rife with errors and mistakes, and documents were routinely misfiled or not filed at all. You would think the foreclosure mills would hire robots to do it all…nope! I’ve seen prepared complaints from major debt collection firms that look like the software/font/formatting was from the late 90’s and they’ve never bothered to upgrade the system. Like they’re still using wordpefect or something…if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it!

    My favorite example is President Obama. He still uses a blackberry. Really? A blackberry? People still use those? Oh wait, Obama is a lawyer, that’s why.

    • You’ve got it backwards. Lawyers are Luddites when it comes to technology.

      True for most, but not all. There are lawyers with real experience who also understand technology and “get it” when it comes to innovative approaches to solving clients’ legal problems. Not many, but enough.

      And among those, there are an even smaller subset with the deep knowledge of the law and the ability to work with a team to build not-shitty solutions. A company with even one of those lawyers on the team is far more likely to succeed than a company made up of Mtn. Dew–fueled college students or recent law school graduates.

      Without deep knowledge of the law and law practice, it’s pretty hard to make anything useful that works well. Even the bogeyman—LegalZoom—has realized this, and is focusing its current efforts on teaming up with lawyers instead of trying to replace them.

      Oh, and President Obama uses a BlackBerry because the Secret Service insists on it. He has an iPhone and an iPad, too; he’s just not allowed to use all their capabilities for security reasons.

      • Paul Spitz

        There was an article on Obama’s tech in the New York Times sometime in the last few days.

        • EarlyMedievalSerf

          Obama no longer a practicing attorney or even registered in Illinois to practice law, ironically enought:

          ARDC
          “Retired – not authorized to practice law or provide pro bono services”

      • Avram E. Frisch

        There are many technologically capable lawyers, but the software products are simply being designed by idiots. Legal software should not be about replacing lawyers, why would I buy that? Making a time tracking database is hardly a skill that relates to the actual practice of law. These tech companies should be hiring lawyers as consultants to explain to them what they need software to accomplish.

        • EarlyMedievalSerf

          It’s because there are a lot of solo/small firm attorneys who are old and don’t want to spend the money, or a lot of young attorneys who don’t have the money. Clio is about the best thing out there and it’s 50 per user per month and even that feels only marginally better than the purchasing ordering software I used in 1995 at Montgomery Wards.

          I’m telling you, lawyers are luddites. Slack? I’m familiar with it, but how in the world would that work in a law office?

          But this is not necessarily a bad thing. For example, open office concept that is the rage out there – drafting tables, laptops and dozens of people all sitting next to each other, collaborating, or whatever. Shoot me now if you’re going to give me a laptop for all the typing I do, and then make me sit next 2′ from other some lawyer who spends 40 minutes a day on each phone call consoling his whining clients. No way, no way.

          The fact of the matter is that lawyers are luddites. They find something that works and they go with it. Maybe that’s just more being resistant to change than anything, but technology moves much faster than the legal profession does. I still get 28 days to respond to a motion, 14 to reply, and then 7 days to deliver courtesy copies. For real? Amazon can get me a fricken gravy boat made in China in two days, and you can’t tell me an answer to my motion to quash service will be heard in less than two months?

  • Paul Spitz

    One of the biggest problems is that sites that try to match up lawyers with clients – lawdingo, avvo, upcounsel, legalmatch – rarely consider ethics rules regarding fee-splitting, so their systems are designed in such a way that many participating lawyers will be violating their ethics rules.

  • Dan Lear (Avvo) tweeted this relevant image: https://twitter.com/rightbrainlaw/status/692383066438799360

  • Rakesh Madhava

    The executive team at Uber doesn’t drive black cars. Apple execs don’t know how to build iPhones. We’ve hired lawyers in our legal tech company (and we responded to the Smokeball survey). Some have been great, some not so great but there’s been no correlation between their usefulness at the company and a law degree. Lawyers are just that lawyers, there aren’t any magic spells learned in law school. The law is for the common people – it’s not rocket science.

    • If you’re going to try to sell things to lawyers, it might be a good idea to understand your customers. There are a lot of legal tech startups out there that haven’t got a clue what lawyers really want and need.

      You don’t have to have lawyers on staff to do that, necessarily, but many startups are “solving” problems that lawyers don’t need solved, and are blissfully unaware of that fact—until they fail.

      • I’ve skimmed so apologies in advance for density but isn’t this the whole point? If Apple and Google (or any product team) built specifically for lawyers, they would learn from, ahem, lawyers…

      • Rakesh Madhava

        Ignoring the Yosemite Sam characterization, allow me to suggest understanding your customer doesn’t mean *being* your customer. Customers tell you all kinds of things they think they want but don’t really want. And fwiw Steve Jobs and Apple famously avoid relying on market research. It’s like their thing.

        Lawyers are critical to the legal industry just like doctors are important to the medical industry. In both cases, they aren’t the entire industry. While lawyers generally use our software, it’s frequently non-lawyers that actually evaluate and buy our software. It’s a great big world of legal out there.

        But is the idea really that you have to hire lawyers to build software for lawyers? I know lawyers are good at making work for other lawyers but this one takes the cake. It pretty much goes against everthing I’ve read over the last decade about software development. But if you can point me to one credible resource that says ‘start by employing lots of people who would be your users’, I’m be happy to be proven wrong.

        That said, the link to the post on all the wrong problems legal tech is solving I found dead on, thanks for that.

        • Show me where anyone said “start by employing lots of people who would be your users.”

          The Steve Jobs quotation is a good one. I’ve used it many times myself. Lawyers are terrible at knowing what they need, in fact. But legal tech startups are often terrible at knowing what problems lawyers need solved—which is something experienced lawyers are eminently qualified to talk about.

          Anyway, if we’ve got it wrong, what’s your explanation for why so many legal tech startups are building things lawyers don’t care about?

          • Rakesh Madhava

            Better discussed over a bourbon while overgeneralizing but in the meantime IMHO

            1. there lots of software services lawyers care deeply about. Every lawyer I know already has a substantially software enabled business (i.e. email, word processing and time and billing at a minimum)

            2. Startups by nature seem ridiculous and stupid until they don’t. The sharing economy? Really?

            3. At the top of any frothy funding market some weird sh*t is going to get funded. And it’s been frothy until this year – lots of money looking for somewhere to go and B2B SaaS is super hot after Slack and Zenefits.

            4. Stuff that gets funded has to be ‘go big or go home’. Financiers aren’t looking for incremental gains, they’re looking for moonshots so the hard work of a 10% efficiency gain is not as interesting as some variation on “this is an algorithms that will replace lawyers which is an X billion dollar market”.

            5. Every startup in legal is dealing with the same thing – getting data cleaned up and normalized in order to do something with it. It’s a herculean task with the variety of data types in legal -all those rule books create chaos.

    • Sam Harden

      Law may not be rocket science, sure, but it’s definitely not accessible to the common people. The only people who know how to get things done in the court system are
      1. Lawyers with some know-how;
      2. Clueless lawyers’ assistants or paralegals; and
      3. Serial pro-se litigants.
      Yes – having a law degree doesn’t grant you magical abilities to understand the court system or the needs of practicing lawyers. But actually practicing law sure does.

      So while Apple execs may not know how to build an iPhone, I’m pretty sure they hire people who know how to design, build, and program one, all taking into account a bunch of research into the needs of their users. It’d be nice if legal tech companies didn’t just look at the legal industry and say “thar’s gold in them hills” and crank out useless, duplicative, or “disruptive” products.

      But hey, I’m just a lawyer, not a rocket scientist.

  • Alex

    @samglover:disqus and @disqus_U8flUhOaqf:disqus

    Isn’t slightly ironic that Smokeball is promoting this? Smokeball is what, the 15th case management application out there? I get that Smokeball has some cool features for document automation, but the fact that it requires a PC, heavy use of Outlook and MS Word and isn’t cloud-based (it’s a hybrid), is a dealbreaker for this attorney.

    Actually, PC-based, dependent on Outlook and MS Word is just like a zillion baby-boomer led law firms. They understand their target market….it’s just not the target market I want my law firm to be.

    • Sam Harden

      To be clear, Smokeball isn’t sponsoring this article. They did do the survey I cited.

      • Alex

        Understood that you’re not repping Smokeball. I’m just enjoying their positioning as the “built by lawyers, therefor better” case management software that has made some limiting choices in terms of how they structure their product.

  • Damon Pendleton

    I’m an attorney who spent the last few weeks demonstrating case management software. I was amazed at the most basic everyday problems most of these software companies fail to solve.

    I had a few reps that were very receptive to criticism and they vowed to discuss some of these “overlooked” issues. But I wondered the entire time “did these people speak to any praticing attorneys that actually do this stuff ever day?”

    I understand why there are so many new companies because there is room in the market for case management software that actually solves the problem lawyers deal with every day. Many on the market do a poor job overall, especially in niche practice areas.

  • Daniel M. Mills

    And neither do many lawyers for that matter. Solving someone’s legal problem and running your firm like a business are two different skill sets. It accounts for why so many lawyers use pieces of applications rather than relying on one app for everything.

  • Robby Lerman

    This patent attorney – 7 years of writing software prior to passing CalBar and PTO exam – sees huge potential in the area of law practice improvement driven by software. Granted, there are different applications to address different problems. In other areas of business mega applications are combining problems solved making a one stop shop for small business clients. It is possible to manage documents, manage time, manage calendars, manage payroll, and manage HR in one place. BTW – I did spend several years testing ICBMs (rockets) and this isn’t rocket science.