March 29, 2020

Against Legal Technologybeyond the latest office software

This post is part of a series, Common Form.

Do lawyers need legal technology?

Apparently not.

The most important software in my line of lawyering—commercial deals, privacy compliance, and “corporate” work—is the most important software for just about anyone else writing for dollars. E-mail. Address book. Word processor. File manager. Shared folder. Web browser. Internet phone. All skeuomorphs of stalwart, pre-PC devices.

None of this software exists specifically for lawyers. None of it boasts a “lawyer mode” for legal needs. Niche vendors offer add-ons, but the utilities support a lot of customization out of the box. When we do use add-ons or customizations, we don’t expect others to do the same. Many of us don’t even use styles or automatic numbering in Word files. Two steps closer to the lowest common denominator.

I have spent thousands of hours over the last several years building legal technology. That automation proved necessary, though not sufficient, to establish an independent practice. But largely by increasing the efficiency with which I plug into the system of popular software—Microsoft Word, Google Docs, and the World Wide Web—rather than by replacing that system.

A number of others lawyers have been able to leverage my tools. But for the most part, it’s all backstage. The other side sees a Word file, a Google Doc, an e-mail, terms on a Web page. They don’t have any idea how much easier it was for us to prepare that work than they expect. But it doesn’t much matter. From that point on, we mostly work in the same old, standard way.

Would lawyers benefit from law-specific technology?

Apparently they would, individually. But collectively? So far, not much.

Law-specific software increases the productivity and competitiveness of individual lawyers and legal teams. But so far, broadly speaking, it hasn’t done so by challenging the standard way of getting things done across parties and organizations. In other words, legal technology hasn’t changed the game. It has merely enhanced the performance of certain players. The legal technology game changes as the broader, generic office game evolves.

All that’s well and good. I’m not going back to formatting my forms, checking references, tracking definitions, or managing versions manually. Me and my fellow nerd-lawyer friends get along just fine.

But it’s also a bit depressing.

Is this it?

There’s always an element of power fantasy in looking at a field top-down, envisioning a new and better way of doing business. Microsoft Word is a bloated nightmare. Google Docs is a footgun if the other side isn’t friendly. Organized file sharing rarely happens between two sides. But saying how it ought to be instead, from a God’s-eye view looking down, is a long way from actually making the change, as if by godlike, omnipotent mandate. To get the herd pointed to the promised land, you have to promise quite a bit. If you can’t deliver and communicate a massive step change in value or functionality, no one is going to break from the pack.

So pending some flash of legal-tech genius, we’re stuck?

Only if we choose to frame it this way. But it’s easy enough to turn this line of thinking around.

Set the idea of law-specific technology aside. What could the practice of law contribute back to the general technology of reading, writing, analysis, debate, and negotiation? Is all our wisdom really law-domain specific?

These questions are rattling around in my head quite a lot these days. A major client of mine has announced acquisition, and I’d expected to take a bit of a brain break, and redouble efforts on projects, in the lull after the end of that relationship. Then came a virus, nixing my plans to be traveling once a month. And a lot of state-mandated alone time.

I initially saw this as a chance to pick up old projects, especially commonform.org, the web manifestation of my contract-management toolkit. I’d like to finally turn that into something others will use, and also pay for. But I keep returning also to Proseline, an earlier attempt at a turn-based document sharing system, too. And beginning to think that the division between those projects, between what is good for legal authors and what is good for authors more generally, really ought to be dissolved, not reinforced.

I do think legal writers have wisdom to share with writers overall. And if I can offer any part of that value to the main, I think it’s by staying and working where worlds collide—law, writing, and software—than trying to serve each, separately, on its own self-reinforcing terms.

more posts about: Law Practice Legal Technology Proseline

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