Lessons from Shoreditch: LegalGeek, the tin man and access to justice

Over the last couple of days, LegalGeek has held two conferences in London. Both were sell outs – 2000 at the general and 200 at the specialist gatherings. The main one was the third in an annual series with last year’s reported here. The subsidiary day was a new venture – orientated toward design. Both focused on the commercial application of technology to legal services. Both were really enjoyable and well organised – though they left questions about the application of tech to access to justice.

You get to recognise the LegalGeek style pretty quickly. It reflects that of the start up culture and LegalGeek’s founder. Jimmy Vestbrick is  an energetic serial entrepreneur with ‘over 10 years experience building startups and [who] has started everything from a festival catering business at university to a touch screen software company and a portfolio of online dating sites’. He is not a lawyer. From its conferences, we can say that Jimmy and LegalGeek like large, draughty, achingly trendy venues in East London, often in converted breweries, with copious food stalls, coffee on tap during the day and beer in the afternoon, rock music, buzzy crowds, after-parties and a certain eccentricity. Missing this year in the main hall was the usual VW camper van which Jimmy and the team periodically take to Eastern Europe and elsewhere. However, there was still the unexplained presence of two figures covered in silver foil. The Law Society or Bar annual conference, this is not. There was a no tie rule for a start. 

You would not doubt, however, that this is a serious event with a serious purpose. One of the most coherent sessions was, once again, aimed at entrepreneurs taking their product to market – on which we heard advice from bankers, venture capitalists and incubators. A fellow attendee remarked that the atmosphere resembled nothing so much as a better dressed – not to say better behaved – gathering of Californian gold diggers circa 1850. But, he was an academic – though sharp enough to add that the business to get into was the equivalent of selling shovels rather than digging. There was an undercurrent of hustle and a shiver of apprehension as one speaker said that only 8 per cent of legal start ups survived. Another caused a bit of concern by predicting the coming of age of consolidation as the market matured.

Even if you stayed in the main hall and took your breaks, you heard over 60 speakers. These included the President of the Law Society and a government minister, Lord Keen, a smooth-talking Scottish advocate whom I had last seen in litigation, Cadder v HM Advocate , where he unsuccessfully sought to argue the striking proposition that the European Convention on Human Rights might apply to England but not Scotland. LegalGeek’s audience was more friendly than that of the Supreme Court. No one probably knew of his previous heresy. And he was given a fair wind to set out the government’s plans to increase our role in legal technology – despite being the only tie-wearer of the day. The man from the Solicitors Regulation Authority took his off.

Overall, some commendable care had been taken on the diversity of the speakers – in which men were, just about, a minority. The Women in Law Tech panel were even allowed to speak without last year’s male MC. Diversity, overall, was pretty good and LegalGeek had clearly put some effort into making it so. The day even began with a transatlantic oarsman, George Biggar, talking about his ordeal, undertaken for MIND, the mental health charity. Tech start ups are generally notorious for a long hours culture that can wear down mental health – though Mr Biggar was too tactful to make much of this and all the speakers that referred to working hours asserted that their firms were exceptions.

With so many speakers, it is hard not to have a dip in concentration. I lost it a bit in the early fifties. And the ones that stand out may partly do so because you like their message or they were particularly good presenters. Noah Waisberg of Kira Systems, an AI driven document review system, impressed me with the first of three references in the day to the Gartmore hype cycle. This, in Gartmore’s own words, provides ‘a graphic representation of the maturity and adoption of technologies and applications, and how they are potentially relevant to solving real business problems and exploiting new opportunities. The approach gives you a view of how a technology or application will evolve over time, providing a sound source of insight to manage its deployment within the context of your specific business goals.’ The basic idea is that there is a common process that proceeds from: an innovation trigger up to a peak of inflated expectations, which ultimately crashes to a trough of disillusionment, whereupon a journey begins up the slope of enlightenment to the plateau of productivity. This is a bit too much low Bunyan imagery but there is a lot of commonsense in the notion that  a new idea like AI gets hyped and oversold before this is recognised and, finally, the mature benefits taken.

A linked idea which Catherine Krow of Digitory Legal raised was that of the need to avoid ‘shelfware’. This is defined in the New Hacker’s Dictionary as ‘Software purchased on a whim (by an individual user) or in accordance with policy (by a corporation or government agency), but not actually required for any particular use. Therefore, it often ends up on some shelf.’ And that led on to a stuttering but interesting conversation by later contributors. Shmuli Greenberg of LawGeex, an automated contract review company, had a nice line. His contribution was entitled ‘Don’t buy legaltech’. He was the source of the dispiriting figures of legal tech failures. But, his argument was that you should not produce a product because you are, for example, interested in artificial intelligence. Terrible idea. You had to look at the systems which users were actually using and look for pinch points that you could address. 

That emphasis on beginning with the needs of the user is at the heart of the legal design approach with a set of techniques which has been pioneered by Stanford’s Legal Design Lab. This was a theme throughout both days and well presented by the opening speaker of the second, Meera Klemola. In some ways, she summed up another feature of legal tech: its internationalism. She is an Australian lawyer, living in Finland, working with a law firm with offices in San Francisco, Berlin and Helsinki, who studied partly in France and was inspired by legal design in the US.

So, a lot of ground was covered and a lot of words were said. It was striking, however, that so few of them related to technology’s impact on access to justice. There was just the occasional reference to consumer benefits. There was no access to justice hackathon, as there has been in previous years (not, in itself, a bad thing given the extent to which the practical impact of these can be criticised). Furthermore, LegalGeek’s associated charitable wing, Law for Good, is changing its remit. As explained in the conference programme, this has had a focus one ‘delivering projects on behalf of charities in the legal space’. It is now reorientation towards being ‘a resource hub’ which will do ‘everything from ‘how to guides’ to articles demystifying the tech world for charities and example work flows for technology projects … What is most precious to us now is knowledge and intellectual property such as personal research papers, best-practice examples, case studies and even lessons that have been hard-earned by charities’.

Such a move sounds eminently sensible. The resources should be worth consulting. And the move would accurately reflect an observation that arises from the conference. Legaltech is advancing at speed in the commercial sector. It is evolving to the incorporation of exciting ways of focusing on user experience rather than tech capability as its bedrock – a sign of a maturing market. It is recognising the trends of consolidation and inter-operability. And, it is, unfortunately and unavoidably, drawing away from – and at least for this phase – consumer-oriented access to justice where there may be some trickle down effect but much less action. That would reflect the realities of funding. Of course, what would completely galvanise this area of the market would be a decisive move by the big providers to deliver comprehensive legal services. But we are far from that. It will be interesting to see what comes up next year.

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