What Attorneys Can Learn From Accountants About Technology: The Realities and the Possibilities

By Paul Domnick on November 29, 2018
Paul Domnick

As President of Litera Microsystems, Paul Domnick brings a special knowledge about risk management solutions in both legal and financial services.

Legal IT Insider recently released its Accountancy Tech Report, “How the Other Half Do Tech,” examining the differences in how the accounting and legal professions have responded to technology. It made some great points about avenues for improvement in how lawyers adapt to technological advances. It also revisited a few widely held beliefs, like the idea that the “legal industry tends to be a lot less adventurous” than the accounting industry, and the classic notion that lawyers “don’t want to change.”

But, while those perceptions are common, I don’t think they accurately reflect the full picture. We’ve been celebrating innovation in the legal profession for over a year, most notably through our publication of The Changing Lawyer and the inaugural Changing Lawyer Awards. Legal technology conferences like ILTACON and Legaltech New York—the latter of which has been running since 1982—are massive affairs, stuffed to the gills with adventurous types who are doing more than accepting change: they’re proactively driving change across the legal industry.

Now, to be clear, accountants have indeed done an incredible job with technology, and I agree that lawyers have much to learn from them. But the differences in our technology adoption rates are at least partially explained by some of the differences between the two professions that the report didn’t delve into.

Here’s what I see.

The Realities: Yes, the Law Has Been Slow to Adopt Some Technologies, for a Few Good Reasons

There are several unique external forces that operate as brakes on legal technology adoption.

The courts are a constant check on all aspects of the legal system. As lawyers, it’s hard to evolve certain aspects of legal work faster than the courts do. The accountancy report pointed this out, noting that “the legal industry’s tech ambitions can sometimes be frustrated by the speed at which courts are digitising.” What it didn’t state was that court systems have neither the time nor the budget—or, for that matter, the motivation or business leadership—to enable systemic overhauls, technological investments, or radical strategic thinking. Of course, at some point, society and the legal profession will evolve anyway, dragging the courts along with it.

Case law precedent can act as an anchor. Under our common-law system, precedent is often king. This reality forces the legal profession to be beholden, in many senses, to the past. Lawyers are indeed reluctant to invest in an expensive technology that may be rejected by the ultimate arbiter of legal disputes. This binds the legal profession more tightly to a traditional outlook where change occurs slowly. Yet, even so, change is occurring, thanks to the efforts of courageous legal professionals who can clearly see where technology can lead us in the future.

Technology suited for legal work has been slower to evolve. This conclusion is based on a few observations. First, as the accountancy report acknowledged, our sister industries are on even footing when it comes to common technological solutions for general operating functions. As the report said, “Both sectors are using similar technologies around document management, content management, and practice management.” It’s largely where our work differs that our rate of technological adoption differs.

Second, the report emphasized that the best candidates for automation and smart technology are specifically “complex, time-consuming jobs that are repeatable.” Unfortunately, there are fewer of those jobs in the legal world. Computers are profoundly adept with numbers, as are accountants, but lawyers just don’t have many numbers to crunch. What we do have are words to analyze; rules, regulations, and laws to synthesize; and clients to advise—often clients who are on the brink of doing, or have just done, something rather ill-advised.

Only recently, with the advent of truly useful, capable natural language processing technology, is technology able to revolutionize the way that lawyers work. Even so, much of lawyering still involves the uniquely human work of analyzing conflicting laws and regulations, parsing facts, and comparing the two to look for alternative explanations or courses of action.

Finally, there’s one area where the law is rife with complex, time-consuming jobs that are repeatable: ediscovery, and particularly document review. And there, lawyers have been using increasingly sophisticated artificial intelligence, in the form of technology-assisted review, for years—long enough for one judge to call it “black letter law.”

By acknowledging these realities, I’m not making excuses for lawyers. I don’t think lawyers need excuses; I see many of them striving to implement change just as vigorously as professionals in other fields. That said, the legal industry needs to make several adjustments to continue advancing the adoption of legal technology.

The Possibilities: Change Is Coming as the Law Embraces Innovative Technology

There are five things—to start with, anyway—that are changing, and that need to continue to change, to bring us all into a new legal technology zeitgeist.

1. Legal departments and law firms need to operate like businesses. For most of our history, the legal industry has been a force unto itself, not bound by the standard rules of business operations. This old method is gradually dying out, as it should be. Today, there are new roles in legal operations and a new focus on controlling costs without sacrificing results. There’s also an increased focus in legal offices on building out a full complement of supporting professionals from outside of legal, including technology and business specialists.

2. Lawyers need to find ways to be more proactive advisors. The history of lawyering is, in a nutshell, the history of getting people out of trouble (or trying to, at least). But it’s impossible to think strategically when, as a profession, lawyers are continually forced to hack through the weeds of reactivity. In-house corporate counsel have always had a leg up here, but increasingly, attorneys in all settings are finding ways to provide proactive advice to their clients so that they can avoid trouble altogether. Of course, that’s not a one-way street, which leads to my next point.

3. Clients need to see their lawyers as strategic partners, not as a last resort. The accountancy report acknowledged the damaging perception that lawyers are “a grudge purchase,” a resource that no one wants to call on unless (and until) they have to. As lawyers work on becoming proactive advisors, we have to concurrently help our clients shift their attitudes so that lawyers can act as big-picture, long-term strategic partners instead of one-off “fixers.”

4. Legal professionals need to give innovation practical support. One of the key differences between the structure of accounting firms and that of law firms is the seniority and autonomy afforded to leaders in technology and innovation. Innovation often requires a long-term sensibility; profits may not be immediate, but incremental improvements will, over time, accumulate into substantial returns. Instead of considering only this year’s bottom line, legal professionals should follow their counterparts in accounting by prioritizing long-range innovation initiatives and granting their technology leaders the autonomy to make decisions without constantly checking in with senior partners.

5. Lawyers need to leave behind the outdated perception that they’re “bad at technology.” Lawyers don’t “hate technology.” This somewhat self-fulfilling prophecy has caused too many people—both inside and outside the legal profession—to be skeptical of lawyers using technology. It’s an unnecessary limiting belief, and it’s time for all of us to shed it.

In total, I do agree with a majority of the points in Legal IT Insider’s report. Lawyers do have valuable lessons to learn from the way the accounting profession has embraced long-term innovation and process-improvement technology. But I think they’re closer—both mentally and practically—to a legal technology revolution than many people realize.

From where I sit, the future is bright.


Topics: Legal

Stay up to date