Last year, the first ALTACON was hosted in a waterfront converted warehouse in Melbourne. This year, with the hashtag #vALTACON, it went virtual. But, in-person or online, ALTACON remains an opportunity to keep your finger on the pulse of legal innovation in Australia – to understand how far it’s come, and where it’s (probably) going next.
vALTACON came at a critical moment, as legal technologists seek to meet the changes in demand and service delivery that COVID-19 has brought. As Jodie Baker, Chair of ALTA, put it, “the focus will be on business efficiencies, automation, and business processes that deliver cost-effective solutions. Enter legal technology.”
Here are our top 5 speakers, comprising the best and brightest from the world of legal tech.
Nicole Bradick (Illustration by Bori Ahn)
Nicole Bradick – of leading legal product development firm Theory & Principle – encouraged law firms not to stall innovation projects in the COVID-19 era. While ‘fluffy’ projects might be axed, legal tech product strategy remains relevant as long as it is relevant to clients.
Much of her talk was dedicated to just how hard it is to build a successful product. First, you have to be keyed into the unique habits, behaviours, and needs of the user. She encourages us to avoid the temptation of thinking, ‘well, when I was in-house, I wanted these things’, and instead ask the client directly.
According to Bradick, we also have to make sure we’re solving the right problem, asking the right questions and doing it all at the right time. For example, we have to be discerning to truly understand what users are telling us: there’s a difference between ‘make my laptop smaller’, which lead to strange, small computers, and saying, ‘make my phone bigger’, which lead to the invention of the iPad.
Finally, she implored us to ignore our perfectionist tendencies and to show end users our idea really, really early on. To prove her point, Bradick shared a rather blistering quote from Bob Taylor, Senior Corporate Counsel at Liberty Mutual Insurance: “Please stop coming to me after you have built something with your idea of how I should work. Instead, please come to me and endeavour to understand how I work and what I need. Then we can co-create together and make something truly useful for us both.”
Mitch Kowalski (Illustration by Bori Ahn)
In his keynote speech, Mitch Kowalski – who wears many hats, including law professor, General Counsel, and legal operations consultant – recapped the past decade of legal tech. Applying the tech industry lifecycle to legal tech, Kowalski noted that the introductory phrase of legal tech was marked by a feeling of ‘things could be better; this can’t be the best way’. As he wryly put it, “certainly, you could say that on any day of the week, for those of you who’ve worked at a law firm.” Getting market uptake for those early services was challenging. Entrepreneurs were siloed, both geographically and in the type of legal services provided.
But, Kowalski suggested, the 2010s marked the end of the introductory phase. The legal tech industry finally gained some traction. Law firms built internal tech incubators, media interest increased, in-house counsel brought in legal ops, legal hackathons created communities, Venture Capitalists became keen on legal, and a legal tech Wikipedia page was born.
Kowalski believes legal tech is now in its growth phase. There are around 2,000 legal tech companies globally, depending on who you ask. Customers understand its value proposition and seek it out. Leaders in the industry are emerging. Companies are starting to integrate what they’re building with other platforms customers are using.
He ended on a cautionary note. COVID-19 represents a huge challenge for the industry – “if legal is hurt, legal tech is hurt.” But because legal tech is finally in its growth phase, it’s more resilient and more able to weather the storm than it would be in earlier times.
Michelle Mahoney (Illustration by Bori Ahn)
You’d be hard pressed to argue with hard data. Or, at least, this is what Michelle Mahoney, Director of Innovation at King & Wood Mallesons, argued in her talk. KWM lawyers use an ‘experimentation’ model to test legal tech before adoption, and it really does sound like a science experiment, with all its rigor and exactitude.
It starts with the methodology: experiment design, learning goals, and time-boxing. Then a hypothesis is articulated: What’s the value proposition specific to your law firm? What must be true or validated in order for this tech to be implemented? How do you predict it’ll meet a client experience not yet met in the market, or strategically link to a gap or growth area? Finally, a report is written about the results.
Mahoney also stressed the need to look beyond what the product says on the tin. It’s great that a product does what it said it would. But the real question is adoption at scale and sustainability. They should be looking at usability, supporting structures, reliability, and key functionality.
Jules Miller (Illustration by Bori Ahn)
Jules Miller, an investor, 3-time entrepreneur, corporate executive and intrapreneur, spoke to the fact that, even though she initially formed the opinion that although the most innovative tech isn’t being created in legal, tech customised for lawyers and tech replacing or automating the work of lawyers are still big opportunities.
But what Miller has learned over the last few years is that this is just the vertical market. She said legal tech can be much more than just tech that helps or replaces lawyers. If law is “a system of rules which a particular country or community recognises as regulating the actions of its members”, then legal tech is anything that impacts those rules followed by society, businesses and communities.
Miller encouraged legal tech to think of itself less as a specific industry vertical, but more of a layer on top of other categories. Because while vertical marketplaces are exciting, horizontal marketplaces have much broader and bigger potential.
Richard Tromans (Illustration by Bori Ahn)
“Everyone is saying COVID-19 will be a watershed moment for digitisation for lawyers,” said Richard Tromans, legal economist and editor of one the world’s leading legal tech publications. But what was more interesting to Tromans is that there’s going to be economic pressure on the clients, in the same way as in 2008-2009. He mused that there are quite a few legal tech companies that exist today that wouldn’t exist or wouldn’t be doing so well if it hadn’t been for the financial crisis. The pushback that flowed from the CFOs through the GCs to the law firms drove the systemic shift towards thinking about efficiency. After all, why use legal tech if money and time is no object?
Tromans predicted that the fundamental change is going to be clients making use of cost analysis and legal spend software. He said it’s currently a small segment of the legal tech world, “probably because it’s not regarded as a sexy area.” But if clients can analyse all the bills they’re receiving, they can really start to standardise costs. And then, Tromans said, you live in a much better world. Because most of us can walk into any shop and have at least a vague idea of what things will cost, but comparatively, “the commercial legal world has a complete lack of transparency”. By benchmarking costs, we can help to drive efficiency throughout the economy.