This past summer, I was fortunate enough to spend July exploring the west coast of the United States with family and friends.
Thanks to my firms’ commitment to agile working practices, I was also able to work part-time from wherever I happened to be – whether that was a coffee shop in downtown Oakland, or relaxing in a cabin by Lake Tahoe (though it must be said that the wi-fi was better in one of those locations than the other!)
The highlight of this trip for me was delivering a guest lecture at the prestigious law school of UC Berkeley, where I spoke to some of their LLM students about legal technology and innovation trends in the United Kingdom.
A member of the audience asked me whether the legal tech scene at home differs significantly from that of the USA. In years past I would have said certainly yes – a common observation would have been that the US market was about two to three years behind the UK market in this regard. This time however, I had to pause and reflect on a few recent developments that have made the answer less clear-cut.
Here in the UK, October is very much ‘conference season’ in legal tech, and arguably the most anticipated event is Legal Geek. Now in its fourth year, Legal Geek UK sells over 2,000 tickets and features over 100 speakers from around the world. This year, Legal Geek held their inaugural Legal Geek North America event in New York for 450 attendees (with over 100 on the waiting list) – not too shabby for an event which began life in a San Francisco bar with just 30 people attending! The arrival, and clear success, of Legal Geek USA marks a milestone of enthusiasm in the American legal tech scene. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if a West Coast chapter forms in the next year or two.
This year the USA was also host to ILTA Con19 – one of the world’s premier legal technology vendor expos. Orlando was the host city this year, and 2020 will see the expo move to Nashville. That the USA should consistently host this major gathering of tech vendors is not at all surprising, when you consider that many of legal techs brightest stars are US-registered corporations. Big names like DocuSign, LegalZoom and Atrium all hail from the USA.
There have also been major milestones reached in the world of legal education. Several prestigious law schools now host some form of innovation research programme, such as the Berkeley Center for Law & Technology, or Stanford’s CodeX partnership between their law school and computer science faculty. In addition, well over 30 American law schools now offer a LLM course in some combination of law and technology. I was fortunate enough to visit some of them on my trip, and I can report that the academic enthusiasm for modernising the legal industry is no less prevalent there than it is here in the UK.
So why has the USA historically been behind the UK in this respect? One theory is that the concept of the billable hour is still more widely accepted in the American legal services market than it is here. Since the 2008/09 market crash in particular, UK firms have increasingly operated on fixed fee or capped fee arrangements with many clients. These conditions provide a solid incentive to utilise technology in delivering those legal services more efficiently – every minute saved benefits the bottom line. The billable hour on the other hand arguably penalises efficiency. However, as buyers of American legal services also begin to reject the billable hour, the need to modernise becomes irresistible.
I suspect if I’m asked the same question next summer I’ll have a much shorter answer – by mid 2020 I predict that the technology adoption gap between the UK and American legal sectors will be all but closed. Right now is unquestionably a great time to be a technology-forward lawyer in the American market, just as much as it is here at home.
Sam Moore is Innovation Manager at Burness Paull, a Senior Lecturer in Legal Technology at Glasgow University and Scotland’s first Accredited Legal Technologist