There is a relative absence of consumer-facing products in the otherwise rapidly growing and exciting space of legal tech. That absence is notable and has implications for access to justice. For the time being it seems that traditional law firms and advisory organisations remain the gate keepers to consumer level legal advice and access to justice. The legal tech innovation, it seems, is happening mostly behind those walls.
I attended the #legalgeek and #legaldesigngeek conferences in London earlier this week.
The scale of this emerging industry can be overwhelming. Thousands of attendees were spread across two large stages and five display spaces. Hundreds of companies were present, from established firms and consultancies to the fifty or so startups in the village. Although smaller, the design conference on Thursday had its own mix of consultants and designers, all trying to build out a new space in this old industry.
In an effort to simplify the legal tech market in my mind, I tried to group the companies that I saw into categories. I based the grouping on the services they provide and who they provide them to.
The majority of the companies provided tech solutions to law firms or sophisticated consumers of legal products, such as large corporations. This included tools to assist lawyers in their traditional roles (document review, contract automation, research tools), client and practice management tools, software development platforms to create bespoke tech solutions and consultancies to act at at the interface between all of these groups.
Other organisations on display were established law firms, consultancies or education providers adapting their services and internal practices to this evolving new-law landscape.
Most of these organisations were brilliant and innovative. The tools and practices they provide will undoubtedly disrupt the inner workings of the legal industry over the coming decades.
However, in doing the above grouping exercise, I noticed that very few of the start-ups were providing legal solutions directly to consumers, such as the provision of legal solutions to individual citizens needing assistance with tenancies, migration, employment, family or criminal law matters.
There are some providers out there in the consumer-facing legal space. Networking platforms such as Anika Legal and Law Centres Network aim to help connect those in need with human legal advice. Do Not Pay, Rocket Lawyer and Legal Zoom provide discrete legal solutions direct to consumers in certain jurisdictions.
However, their relatively small numbers in the legal tech space is notable. The implications or cause of their relative absence is not immediately obvious. However I suspect it supports some or all of the following theses:
1. Providing consumer legal solutions without a legally qualified person as a mediator is technically very difficult. The technology simply isn’t mature enough yet;
2. The innovators in the legal tech space have backgrounds in traditional law. They have seen problems there and come up with solutions within that traditional framework;
3. Traditional law and corporate consumers is where the investment currently is;
4. Regulatory barriers prevent start-ups from moving into a consumer legal advice space.
In the current legal tech market, most of the services or products are being channelled through law firms or sophisticated corporate clients. That innovation may very well drive down the cost of legal advice. That is undoubtedly a positive outcome and will partially increase access to justice. However, traditional law firms and advisory organisations appear set to remain the gate keepers to legal advice for now.