The day legal trended

Like fintech, foodtech and martech, it’s a time of terrific flux in the legal industry, writes Simon Gittins from the 2017 Legal Geek Conference

Nine million impressions. Nine million. Nine, million. 1,000+ people, 20+ countries, 40+ start-up pitches. Coders, lawtech start-ups, magic circle partners – in abundance, data miners, law futurologists – all jetting in, all in jeans and trainers, no titles on name badges and not a tie in sight.

Sometimes, it’s worth pin-pointing the precise moment in time something significant happens. This was that day, the day that ‘legal’, or legal services, law tech or legal tech, law for good – everything law – signalled to the outside world that it had embraced the beginning of irreversible change. This was the day legal actually trended on twitter. This was ‘Legal Geek’.

On 17 October 2017, in a not so quiet Brick Lane venue in London, the legal industry shouted to the entire world with street food, rock bands and an after party, that it is now ready for revolutionary change. The brilliantly chosen location, itself sporting disruptive business ideas like the cereal café where you can have practically any bowl of cereal at any time of the night cheek-by-jowl with the traditional, the familiar ‘beigel’ shop for example in continuous operation since 1855 (oh yeah, and flanked by a Banksy or two), couldn’t have been a better setting.

The conference opened promising no robot slides – phew – what a relief. Speakers, inspirational lawyers from start-ups from outside the industry, for example a past-lawyer, Srin Madipalli from Accomable (an online portal making it easier for those with a disability to travel) to Mark Cohen who has a standing column in Forbes on the global legal business sector who described this as the ‘golden age of the legal entrepreneur’, to venture capitalists looking at legal start-ups in the same way they once looked at the finance sector and those about to start lawtech or legaltech funds solely for investment in this market. As well as investors and incubators, there were RegTech and LegalTech breakouts with speed networking and start-up pitching. Everything ever needed for change and all in one place.

How did the legal industry do this? The truth is, it didn’t exactly. In an industry sector not renowned for its sharing of intellectual capital, it needed help from outside. (Indeed, there were still one or two at the conference uttering phrases like, ‘Why would we give away the crown jewels?’ but they were firmly in the minority and not just inside the conference.) The legal industry is ready to share, but for this pearl of an idea to take shape, it needed a nucleus foreign to it around which to form. The organising force was Jimmy Vestbirk from Legal Geek. We met Jimmy, albeit briefly and he’s rightly not shy and nor should he be about his background in online dating and how it’s relevant to his adopted sector. He told us, ‘I’ve always been good about forming communities.’ How lucky the legal industry was to have him and how ready it was to embrace and bring to the surface those often long forgotten values so central to law that are often buried in the day-to-day practice of it.

Why, or ‘why now’ might you ask? Because just like some other sectors the legal industry is made up of vibrant intelligent people who see and use market leading tech and tech enabled businesses in their private lives all of the time. Young lawyers in particular are not willing to ignore the Apples, Amazons, Teslas, Ubers and Googles and the way in which revolutionary approaches and ideas are funded and given frontline opportunities in their respective sectors. Why should those ideas stop at the threshold of the legal sector? The Bar in the main particularly suffers from this. It is losing members under 15, 10 and five years’ Call, talented people to other sectors. Why? You might ask instead, why not?! When they cannot reconcile the improvements technology brings to the rest of their lives with the operation of their profession day-to-day, why should they stay?

In fact, in the last three and a half years, the number of solicitors has increased by the entire population of the Bar and more. There is only so long lawyers will suffer not having an outlet or forum for the application of ideas based in merit, fairness, advancing society and – yes – ‘making the world a better place’. It is, after all, why most came to the Bar in the first place. Lawyers and new ideas need to be taken seriously and on this day, they were. Not only because the Law Society and partners from most magic circle firms were here, but because on the eve of the conference one legal start-up closed an $8.7m series A round (Ross Intelligence) and there were and are others, Atrium in the US $10m and recently DoNotPay $1m. Even with these seemingly large amounts, as one slide rightly put it, investment in law is tiny compared to the size of the UK market for legal services and is still ‘early’. In fact the debate into whether the $1.2tn global market in law is a business or a profession is over, it’s both: at that size, how could it be anything else, as one presenter put it. The Bar isn’t ignoring this, there are early signs of change, but the Bar and its representative body must surely realise that it is far from immune from the borderless reach of technology, especially when others all around are encouraging and embracing change.

Like fintech, foodtech and martech, this will be a time of terrific flux in the legal industry. New players innovating now will become established giants in their own right and other innovators will be bought by large existing or established players in order to retain a competitive advantage. The pattern isn’t new, but it is new to the practice of law and there will be no going back, any more than we can ‘un-Google’, ‘un-Uber’ or ‘un-electrify’ cars. If you’re reading this and thinking ‘so what’ or ‘tomorrow will be business as usual’ you are simply wrong. ‘Legal Geek’ was the day the legal sector started its own paradigm shift. It was the day legal changed, irreversibly and forever. It was the day ‘legal’ trended. 

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