The legaltech revolution is just getting started (and other lessons from 2020)

The game has changed for the legal and tech worlds in 2020. Where does that leave legaltech? Josef CEO Tom Dreyfus shares some thoughts.

I have been described by friends as a “pathological optimist”. And they aren’t wrong! I really do see half full glasses everywhere I look. But this year – a year that nightmares are made of – has challenged even my ability to look on the bright side.

And so as the world limps towards the end of 2020, I’m taking a moment to reflect on the year that’s been.

So many questions remain unanswered. Have we switched to a new way of working, now and forever? Or do some of us still crave a more traditional work week, surrounded by our coworkers? Is the technological transformation just getting started? Or have we all had enough of video calls and home offices? What does this year of doing things differently mean for legal services and legaltech?

I don’t know the answers to any of these questions. But there are some lessons that I’ve learned in 2020 that I think are worth sharing.

Even when the sky is falling, opportunity awaits

It’s hard to believe that at the start of the year I was in Chicago pitching Josef at the ABA Techshow. In a room full of people excited by our vision for the platform, I was mentally preparing for Josef’s US expansion.

Tom and Johan at the American Bar Association Techshow at the start of 2020

Tom and Johan at the American Bar Association Techshow at the start of 2020

Then all of a sudden, as COVID went from epidemic to pandemic, every talking head in the startup world told us to batten down the hatches and find a way to weather the storm. No longer could we count on our growth to continue. And so we took the best advice available and recalibrated to ensure we could protect our team and our customers. This was hard. And not just hard in the way that being a founder is hard. This was emotional. 

Fast forward two months, and in May we had our biggest ever month of growth. Minds blown and a little sore from the whiplash, we forced ourselves not to overreact – as they say, “one month isn’t a trend”. When we exceeded that again in June and July, we decided it was time to embrace our new reality: the pandemic was helping to drive more demand than we’d ever seen for Josef.

Reflecting on this, I’m still not sure we were wrong to proactively respond to the risks that the pandemic presented. But this has taught us to keep our fears in check and to embrace change. Just as there are and will always be people who worry about risks, there also need to be people ready to seize opportunity. We haven’t looked back.

The legal world can and will build bots

This time last year, we didn’t know how many legal professionals could or would build their own legal automation tools. The traditional model had always been the tech teams building tools for lawyers or their clients to use. Investors would ask us ‘will lawyers who do client work really do this?’ 

Well now we know! Thousands of people built bots on Josef in 2020, and tens of thousands of people used these bots to solve their legal problems. This was the year in which our vision of a legal automation workbench for every lawyer, everywhere, came to life.

I look around now and I see attorneys, in-house counsel, paralegals and innovation managers building bots that are faster, smarter and more sophisticated than – if I’m being very honest – we ever expected. When I explain this to legaltech leaders and other tech companies, I can see them thinking to themselves: “Wow, they’re really doing it”. We’re learning that there is no reason automation can’t be driven from the bottom up, by the people who know their own workflows, processes, documents and clients better than anyone else.

“Today, it’s not even a question of whether legal professionals can or will. The questions we hear now are all about the future and the next level: 'how do we scale this?' and 'what should I build next?'”
– Tom Dreyfus, Josef CEO

Today, it’s not even a question of whether legal professionals can or will. The questions we hear now are all about the future and the next level: ‘how do we scale this?’ and ‘what should I build next?’ 

Tech, ops and innovation deserve a round of applause

This year, the people responsible for legal technology, operations and innovation have been put on the spot time and time again. They’ve been asked to solve problems that didn’t exist yesterday in record time and in difficult circumstances.

As a result, I can see a deep respect emerging in the legal profession – one that I hope will stick! – for the people in tech, ops and innovation roles. Many of the lawyers I’ve spoken to have realised just how much they owe to these colleagues. It’s been an opportunity for all of us to appreciate how good these professionals are at their jobs, and how much we can all learn from them.

I think this will have an enormous downstream cultural impact. Organisations have developed what I hope will remain an insatiable appetite to try new things; a change that has the potential to transform the entire industry’s mindset.

People matter more than ever

Focusing on people has been critical. Openness, honesty and transparency have always been core values at Josef, but in the first couple of months after the pandemic struck these were really tested. Given the uncertainty in the world, we had to have a lot of difficult conversations with our colleagues, investors and customers. 

No matter how advanced our technologies become (or how much social distancing we need), people, empathy and human connection is irreplaceable.

No matter how advanced our technologies become (or how much social distancing we need), people, empathy and human connection is irreplaceable.

Being open, honest and transparent on what we didn’t (and couldn’t) know was a guiding principle we followed, and I see now that it’s a reflection of the kind of company we’re building and the way we work together. As one Global Head of Innovation said to us, “you told us what you’d do, and then you went and did it”. 

I also underestimated the personal impact that successive lockdowns had on all our stakeholders – mentally and physically. Even the most resilient people I know struggled through the year, and it has no doubt affected all of us in ways we’re still dealing with now. No matter how advanced our technologies become, people, empathy and human connection is irreplaceable.

We’re nothing without our team

One of my highlights of 2020 took place about a month ago. My co-founders and I all managed to take some much needed leave in successive weeks. We came back together at the end of the month and had a proud moment when we looked around and saw that the Josef we had returned to was a little bit better than when we left it.

It was really a significant moment for us. The team we’ve assembled is extraordinary. They’re passionate and dedicated and they continue to step up and deliver, week after week, month after month. We’d be nowhere without them.

And so I guess that’s it for 2020! A year that has challenged us and thrown us curveballs, but we’re still here, bigger, better, stronger and wiser than before. Bring on 2021.

More Josef news and views

Josef kickstarts experimental GenAI Lab in NYC with Orrick & Gunderson Dettmer

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My next adventure awaits


That’s a wrap! 2023 in review


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