Interview with Mitch Kowalski, legal tech Renaissance man

Each month, we sit down with one of our heroes from the world of legal tech, innovation and automation. This time, it's Mitch Kowalski, Professor of Innovation and legal tech Renaissance man.

Mitch Kowalski is globally renowned as a legal tech Renaissance man: Law School Professor, General Counsel, ex-Partner of an international law firm, author and speaker. After his keynote at ALTACON, we were lucky enough to sit down with him to talk about the client-lawyer disconnect, how to drive real change and revolutions vs. reformations.

Tell us about yourself. How did you get to where you are today?

I have a portfolio of work that I do, including the Visiting Professor in Legal Service Innovation at the University of Calgary Law School and General Counsel of an in-house team. My background is in legal, practising for many years at various firms.

And what sparked your interest in legal tech and innovation?

Extreme dissatisfaction. I didn’t like the way I was being asked to practice law. I’m a real estate lawyer. For my clients in Toronto, I was always being asked to bid for work. I had to price my work appropriately so we could get the work. And I had to staff the file appropriately so that we hit budget. It was frustrating for me to be doing good work, keeping my clients happy and coming in under budget, but on the other hand being told that my billable hours were too low. We were focused on the inputs – where there was pressure to be inefficient – rather than the outputs, like the good work we’re doing.

When I first worked in an in-house team, it was a very similar situation in the sense that I was doing work that I shouldn’t have been doing. The department was top-heavy, with too many lawyers, rather than being appropriately staffed with clerks who could bang this stuff out more efficiently and at a lower cost base. We had the wrong people doing the wrong work at the wrong time. These sorts of experiences led me into a life of saying “we need to improve”.

Mitch Kowalski

Mitch Kowalski

You get to see a broad cross-section of the profession. What are the common issues you see across in-house teams, law firms and law schools?

The common denominator is that these organisations still view law as an artisanal endeavour.

Law schools still teach students to spend lots of time thinking deeply about an issue, with little connection or concern for what clients really want. They are trained to think that they have lots of time and money to spend on little issues. Then, law firms continue this training. Every issue is treated as bespoke and unique, and therefore it will take as long as it takes. While there is pressure in in-house teams in terms of budgets, there isn’t a lot of incentive for those working in in-house teams to do better. You don’t get a bonus if you do work better. You don’t move forward if you’re the lawyer who’s interested in innovation.

They all come together and intersect at this point: unfortunately, law is still seen as more an art, than a science or a process.

And what is the most common advice you give to these organisations?

Sit down and take the time to really think through exactly what problem you have, and how you’re going to solve it, rather than jumping to conclusions and running down a number of different roads. What does the client really want? 

One of the examples that I teach at law school is a case study on selecting litigation counsel. The client isn’t interested in hiring the best courtroom advocate, because the goal is not to get to court! It’s to settle this thing as quickly as possible so the client can move on. It isn’t about making the best argument in court. It’s about achieving the client’s goal. 

We first met at FLIP last year in Sydney. One of the stories that you told that stuck with me was about a client who didn’t want to come in for a meeting with their lawyer if they didn’t have to. What did you mean by that?

I was talking specifically about a demographic of clients who quite literally live on their mobile devices. The ones who bank on their phones and order food on their phones, particularly with COVID-19. But, when they seek legal services, suddenly their lives are no longer on their phone. It’s far less convenient and a far less pleasant customer experience for them to make the time and physically meet at a lawyer’s office and sign documents with a pen.

For decades, we said, “you couldn’t possibly witness a will by Skype,” but now that we have to, we suddenly can.

For decades, we said, “you couldn’t possibly witness a will by Skype,” but now that we have to, we suddenly can.

COVID-19 appears to be changing this. For example, many jurisdictions are developing workarounds about signing things electronically. For decades, we said, “you couldn’t possibly witness a will by Skype,” but now that we have to, we suddenly can. COVID-19 may have a silver lining – it’s accelerating us in the direction we’ve already been travelling. I just hope we don’t fall back when this is over. That’s what keeps me up at night.

You often speak of the “mindset” required to prepare a legal business for the future. How would you describe it?

Lawyers are naturally sceptics, and they’re also not very good at seeing what can be. To effect change management, you need people who are adaptive and interested in improving their lives and the lives of their clients. 

With sceptics, you have to work harder to convince them how gloomy and dreary their life is – you have to create dissatisfaction with what they’re doing – that’s the key. For many in legal services, even if what they’re doing is extremely clunky, it’s comfortable. They can live with that because learning something new is frightening and takes them out of their comfort zone.

In 2017, you published The Great Legal Reformation. Great name! Have your views changed since then?

I wanted to have something that was a catchy title! That’s the first thing. But I also think it’s easier for people to think about concepts if we apply those concepts to a certain period of time; for example, the GFC, the Cold War, or the Boom. But when trying to convince sceptical lawyers it’s best not to frighten them, so I can’t say that it’s a “revolution”. Reformation is less scary than revolution because it’s simply adjusting and refining stuff that we’ve always done.

Since 2017, I think we’ve seen a lot more interest doing things differently and the buzz has increased substantially. In 2020 it’s not as hard to sell people on these ideas. The key challenge for the 2020s is “adoption” rather than selling the idea. The 2010’s were our introductory phase or education phase. Now the hard work begins. 

Mitch at one of his many speaking gigs

Mitch at one of his many speaking gigs

In that book, you spoke to the “trailblazers”. Can you tell us about some of the most exciting? What can we learn from them?

All of them had very strong leaders with very compelling visions for their firm. These were firms that were also willing to change, adapt and try new ways of doing things in order to differentiate themselves from other lawyers in their space. They didn’t try to differentiate by quality of legal – which is typically what lawyers do. And let’s be honest, most lawyers are very good, so it makes it hard for clients to differentiate based solely on quality. These firms looked to create new and unique customer experiences through different combinations of people, process and technology.

As a lawyer, what are you most excited about? And what are you scared of?

I’m most afraid of the fact we’ll go back to the old ways after COVID. This is a constant fear of mine.

What I’m most excited about is that we finally have a critical mass of people around the world who will continue to develop new, innovative approaches to the legal services experience. We’re too big now to simply fade away and that’s exciting. It’s exciting for me to have watched from the very early days of legal tech and innovation when only a tiny handful of people were talking about – to now where it is becoming normalised across the industry.

And, finally, what is your view on the role that legal tech, like Josef and legal automation, will play in this journey?

I used to say that tech was going to drive a lot of change in the industry. But I don’t think that’s quite right. Rather, tech enables people to make change. But, they’re only going to change if they want to. COVID-19 has forced some of this change, opening their eyes to the technology that we’ve had for years. 

Before, when we spoke about tech, we said things like: “if you get this tech, your clients will love you.” That’s far too abstract and too hard to quantify for sceptical lawyers. COVID-19 has been able to demonstrate to lawyers why they need to focus more on technology. Now that they’re stuck at home, they can see clearly that if they’d invested in tech, their practices would be much better off. Thanks to COVID, a much broader range of lawyers are now understanding tech’s power. So to answer your question, tech will now be seen as a much more essential tool than in the past – it’s no longer a nice to have. And because it’s finally a critical part of the tool kit, even more opportunities will open up for Josef and other tech companies.  

If you’re interested in learning more about how your team could use legal technology, automation and innovation, book a time with one of our experts.