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A New Dawn of Legal Technology

A New Dawn of Legal Technology

A New Dawn of Legal Technology

A New Dawn of Legal TechnologyIn the mid-1980s, a bright red computer terminal that provided lawyers with online access to case law was an iconic status symbol. The UBIQ terminal hooked lawyers up to the Lexis service, at the time one of the first legal technology systems, using full-text search capabilities to provide rapid access to information. The conventional wisdom at that time was that computers were soon going to make extensive legal libraries and paper obsolete.

Thirty-five years on, what has happened? After years of chronic underinvestment in technology and embracing data and systems at the core of the digital agenda, lawyers remain comfortable with paper. Legal documentation has not been effectively digitised and, as a result, legal teams continue to wrestle with data management.

With the next inflexion point in legal technology evolution, including artificial intelligence and smart contracts, fast arriving, Eric Mueller, Chief Operating Officer and Managing Director, D2 Legal Technology and early Lexis developer, asks: Is the legal function finally ready to embrace legal tech and unlock tangible business value?

Iconic Legal Tech

Senior lawyers have been lampooned for years for their lack of technology confidence. Yet each subsequent generation has failed to embrace the innovation in legal tech that could and should have transformed the industry. Thirty-five years ago, however, lawyers were ahead of the curve.  A decade before the commercial arrival of the Internet, easy to use browsers and intuitive search engines, there was huge excitement surrounding Lexis, one the first legal technology products.

In 1987, I was a system developer on the advanced technology team of Lexis, and it appeared the legal environment was ready for significant change. The service provided access to all legal case law – and it was highly intuitive. Development focused on natural language processing (NLP) – a subject still debated today as chatbots become more sophisticated. It included hypertext in an era long before browsers, and used powerful full text search based on key words with Boolean operators, with search results presented in the ‘by relevance’ list, now ubiquitous with any search engine.

In contrast to today’s information services, it was expensive. With no commercially available access to the Internet, Lexis had to accessed through dedicated terminals. The price was per search, putting pressure on users to be very focused on their search terms. The clever decision to use iconic 1980s design to create the red UBIQ terminal, combined with the premium price, heightened the service’s status: the presence of a UBIQ on a lawyer’s desk was a sure sign of success. High profile senior lawyers saw legal technology as the future.

Frustrating Inertia

What happened? When lawyers had online access to case law thirty-five years ago, it seems utterly astonishing that the adoption of legal technology has been so limited ever since. This was a tool delivering tangible value. It was revolutionary, replacing the expensive libraries of case law books that required regular updates. It removed the need for dedicated librarians and time-consuming manual search. And while it was expensive, it was a cost that could be both charged back to clients and justifiable in the removal of the paper-based case law libraries.

Lexis completely changed the way lawyers search for information. One of the services even included the ability to construct a dedicated library that could host any type of document, leveraging Lexis’ ground breaking, full-text search capabilities, and thereby enabling the storage of legal agreements in the database. So why did the adoption of legal technology fail to evolve? Lawyers were slow to adopt PCs and they were behind the curve in mobile technology. Many legal teams still lack access to fully digitised records and their concerns relating the potential use of smart contracts are linked to a lack of widespread digitisation.

It is extraordinary to consider what the legal industry could have achieved if the early adoption of legal tech had not stalled. Sadly, rather than being innovative and embracing the potential of digital records, the industry has underinvested in both legal technology and good data management for the past three decades. Generation after generation of lawyers have failed to take advantage of the power of legal tech to improve client services, reduce risk and enhance efficiency.

Business Case

The impact of this lack of investment is evident in every legal environment – from the financial services’ in-house teams to law firms. These organisations continue to struggle to manage large volumes of legal documentation, resulting in additional risk, cost and a loss of productivity. Yet the technology has been available, proven and trusted for decades.

Lawyers have, quite simply, failed to step up and make the business case for investment in legal tech. While other industries have forged ahead, lawyers have accepted the status quo, continued to rely on paper-based records and time-consuming manual processes. Opportunity after opportunity to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the legal function has been missed.

Now, however, it is becoming essential to take a far more proactive approach and truly understand the power of legal tech. Debates about the disruptive technologies such as AI and chatbots are increasingly placing a spotlight on the role of the lawyer of the future. But how can any legal function consider this next wave of tech innovation when still reliant on outdated processes and undigitised information resources? It is now vital that lawyers step away from the paper-based comfort zone, explore the benefits of legal tech and actively make the business case for investment.


The world has changed massively since 1987 and the rate of change is increasing. It is completely unacceptable that legal functions are not effectively using mature legal tech to improve data quality and accessibility or to support automated processes and de-risk operations. Document digitisation is now a fundamental requirement, not only to meet current demands but to also ensure the legal function is best placed to respond to the challenges of the near future.

The legal industry missed a compelling opportunity to build on early innovation – and it cannot afford to roll the clock forward another 35 years without making vital investment in embracing the increasingly digital world.

Global Banking & Finance Review


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