Legal tech, according to Jeroen Zweers, vice president of the European Legal Tech Association (ELTA), is about a digital transformation, set in motion by customer demand. A transformation which frees up lawyers for complex cases and delivering self-services to clients. ‘For example, contracts can be automatically scaled from low to high risk. Only the high-risk contracts need to be reviewed by the legal department, which saves you a lot of time.’
In order to talk about legal tech, the benefits and its development, we need first to define it. According to Jeroen Zweers, vice president of the European Legal Tech Association (ELTA), legal tech equals innovation or digital transformation. ‘It’s more than just a tech tool, it’s about transforming the legal organization.’ And for what goal? ‘My personal goal is to future-proof the legal industry by using technology, automation and artificial intelligence (AI), but also to create a culture change in the way of working.’
Customers ask for a different skillset
Even though some law firms and inhouse corporate legal departments have embraced legal tech intrinsically, innovation is often driven by customer demand, according to Zweers. ‘Lawyers and counselors are often conservative, but what customers are demanding, is changing. And those demands ask for different skillsets. Law firms and inhouse counselors should build up these skillsets to be able to meet their demands.’
ELTA was set up to inspire legal firms and inhouse departments to transform digitally. ‘At first, I co-founded Dutch Legal Tech, an open platform to bring together and inspire people who are active in the legal industry. In line with this platform, we have set up ELTA, of which I’ve just been appointed vice president. We support local legal tech organizations and communities to stimulate change. By, for example, supplying good speakers and sharing knowledge.’
Next to his work at ELTA and Dutch Legal Tech, Zweers has worked as an innovation director at a law firm to help the lawyers apply legal tech. In 2020, he left the firm to set up his own legal innovation agency, called NOUN. With NOUN, he supports law firms, legal department, legal tech start-ups and Alternative Legal Service Providers (ALSP) with strategy, creating awareness, process analyzing, amongst other things.
Lawyers and automation specialists make a good team
Support isn’t a luxury, according to Zweers, since legal tech is sometimes discouraged in the name of independence. ‘That means that lawyers themselves are responsible for transforming digitally, while innovation isn’t part of their skillset.’ On the other hand, general automation specialists often know too little about the legal industry to recommend useful innovations. ‘It’s the combination of the two that makes a good team.’
To be able to fully benefit legal tech, you should make a distinction between human-intensive work and commodity work. ‘The latter is low-hanging fruit. It’s often work that takes up a lot of time but is repetitive and low risk. For example, judging contracts. The legal department often needs two, three weeks to catch up on work, while the business would prefer to sign right away. These commodities can often be transformed into a self-service product.’
An example: automated contract scaling
‘For example, for a client we developed a tool to automatically determine the risk factor of a contract. Low-risk contracts can be signed by the business by sending the general terms and conditions. An efficiency benefit of three weeks work reduced to ten minutes. Medium-risk contracts could be analyzed and signed off by the purchasing department. High-risk contracts were the only contracts sent through to the legal department.’
‘After using the tool for some months, the data gave us added insights: 60 per cent of the contracts were low risk and 20 per cent needed signing by the purchasing department. So, only 20 per cent were handled by the counselors. The efficiency benefits are clear. Also, this data can support business decisions, like: why are more contracts in a particular country high risk? And can we adapt the terms and conditions to lower the risk?’
Legal artificial intelligence
Other use cases of legal tech could also involve artificial intelligence, says Zweers. ‘Even though some organizations claim otherwise; AI in legal is scarce. More often than not, cases of AI are, what I call, innovation by marketing. Not by doing.’ Which is a shame, since AI can have its benefits in the legal practice. ‘Tools that use AI are being developed as we speak. Tools that can analyze an NDA, for example, and can advise you to sign it or not.’
However, the issue of AI is that you need a lot of data to make the system understand what is important, what is right and what is wrong, and how to advise you. ‘You need data from previous NDA contracts, and senior lawyers who can devise what the system should check and what is important. It will cost a lot of time to set up such a tool, so it will be expensive. The benefits of legal self-service, such as this, however, are great.’
The promise of artificial intelligence
The promise of AI is why Zweers himself is involved in two legal AI startups. One that catalogues content of previous law cases, often used by lawyers to build up their own case. ‘If lawyers search for this content manually, it’s hard to find all the input that might help them. This solution will help lawyers find cases based on previous behavior and specializations. Also, it will recommend interesting cases based on search results.’
Still, this case finder too is based on available data, which the Dutch law practice is not known for sharing: ‘Only four to six per cent of all cases are shared, because it’s probably too labor-intensive to anonymize the cases. Which makes sense, since it’s often done by hand.’ Here as well, AI can solve this challenge of anonymizing cases, according to Zweers, but alas, the software isn’t used. The need for data will remain for the foreseeable future.
Change is coming
However, change is coming. ‘Some might think that since we now do the same thing as we did 150 years ago, we’ll do the same in 150 years from now, but that won’t be the case’, according to Zweers. The 1,200 lawyers, counselors and legal tech specialists of the Dutch Legal Tech community prove that people in the industry know this. And they no longer just talk about the innovation; they know it’s time to actually transform.