August 22, 2022

Legal Technology: Defining Scope and Usage for Meaningful Discussion

When discussing about Legal Technology, or shortly just LegalTech, we may quickly get uncomfortable, since one might have in mind the law to which certain technology applies to (e.g. fintech, regtech, e-discovery, competition law etc.), while on the other hand, some define Legal Technology from the other perspective, in particular how particular technology is applied to the law. Such examples are contract-automation, contract-review, machine learning, case-management software, chatbots and many others. Both approach have good intentions, but does not help us to address term Legal Technology comprehensively. With that being said and considering the lack of precisions, deep discussion is less precise as it could be.

The most elementary definition of Legal Technology could be simply that Legal Technology is any technology that people use when they are anyhow engaged in legal activities. However, this definition has some weaknesses. Important past technological developments such as writing, printing press machine, etc. at some point in history influenced the development of law and legal systems, and ware at some point “legaltech”. Above definition is therefore a bit over-inclusive and may also incorporate certain mundane technologies which are not anymore of innovative nature. I mostly like the definition offered by Julian Webb, who defined Legal Technology as “the use of digital information and communication technologies to automate all or part of the legal work process, to offer decision support to legal service producers, and to provide legal information and advice directly to clients/end users.” However, some argue that this definition is to some extent too narrow and avoid addressing the term more generally.

The best way to find the most suitable definition is to slice the term legal technology to term legal and term technology. There is no doubt that term legal relates to law. In simple terms law is a system of shared, official, institutional and compulsory rules. However, we still need to narrow the definition to those legal activates which are helping the technology as such. On the other hand, and comparing to the law which is omnipresent, term technology is diverse and can interact with the law in many ways. Technology originates from Greek words techne (craft or art) and logos (word, reason, discourse). Since the industrial revolution, the word has become remarkably fluid from machinery to non-physical tools. According to Ryan Whalen the simple definition of technology under the scope of legaltech would be “the ‘technique’ involved in using devices”. This definition helps to ensure that computer clearly fits within the definition of technology and that technologies such as chatbots, machine learning and smart contracts are not excluded.

To make a fusion of both general definitions, we can define legaltech as follows: “all devices, capable of being used as a means for interacting with the substance of law or assisting its user to interact with the law, and the skills and techniques by which we use them.’ This encompasses all technologies that are capable of being used towards legal ends” What is in my opinion clear, is that primarily LegalTech is technology which is assisting the law to provide certain more or less meaningful result. That exclude the definition which is leaning into direction of term legal supremacy in legaltechnology.

To expand the definition even further, I like how Ryan Whalen build the concept of Legal Technology on two dimensions, in particular legal directness which refers to the extent to which a technology interacts with the law, whereas specificity runs from generic technologies with few legal applications to more specific technologies designed only for legal relates purposes.

We can see that on the top the legal technology hierarchy are those technologies that afford primarily legal uses and that engage directly and deeply with the law (e.g. making legal decisions, enforcing the law, etc.). One of such Deep legaltech examples could be articular contract automation, which is able to take into account different facts and relevant laws before creating final version of the contract. Another examples are smart contracts about which LexRatio prepared an introductory article not so long ago. Under the umbrella of Deep legaltech could also fall mere theoretical technologies which are in the process of development, or just discussed as an idea. In my (pragmatic) opinion only technologies which directly engages with the law are pure legaltech (Deep legal tech and Generic legal tech), while other two categories only have supporting function for legaltech development as such.

Above used definition is just starting point to begin thinking about scope of legaltech more precisely and to evaluate the importance of particular legaltech solution or an idea more easily. We should also not overlook that legal technologies may raise the need to change the laws to avoid concerns about justice, equality and democracy. To briefly conclude, legaltech is here so stay while making benefit for its users, regardless its users are lawyers or non-lawyers. However, we should not overlook the risks new technologies might bring to its users and society.

Tell me what do you think? Would you define LegalTech differently? Feel free to post your thoughts and comments.

This article was prepared by Marcel Hajd.

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