What will be the Legal Tech Trends of 2021 (and what will definitely not!)

We asked some thought-leaders what they thought will be the legal trends of 2021 - and what would probably not. Here is what they replied.

February 16, 2021

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What will be the Legal Tech Trends of 2021 (and what will definitely not!)

As our CEO recently stated in an op-ed in Forbes, the future looks bright for the legal tech industry. After two record-years for legal tech investments, 2020 dropped a bit in total but ended well. With new vaccines on the market and an economic boost expected just around the corner, 2021 is set to be another record year.

Because what 2020 lacked in investments (which wasn't a lot), it definitely had in legal tech adoption. As we have also described elsewhere, the pandemic has forced a digital transformation across all industries, and the legal industry was no exception. Legal tech seems to have reached the slope of enlightenment on Gartner's hype cycle. There is less focus on over-hyped technologies such as robot lawyers, blockchain-enabled smart contracts and fancy AI-tools that never really works.

The legal industry has been forced to adopt proven digital technologies that work here and now - just to survive in a lockdown society. It is our firm belief that such software has proven their worth, demystified tech and showed a very tangible return of investment. Exactly just as the legal industry has been forced to realise that remote work is suitable for legal work and that trophy real estate is not a prerequisite for running a law firm. All of that is going to accelerate the digital transformation even further.

The future of work has just arrived.

You can read all of our takes on legal tech trends in 2021 in the aforementioned Forbes-post. But what do we know? You may ask. Aren't we just another innovation-crazed future-of-work company with a clear interest in the promotion of digital technologies within the legal industry? Yes. But to our excuse, we are also pretty serious about being just that.

To enhance this trend-piece's trustworthiness, we asked some legal tech thought-leaders what they expect to be the most important legal tech trend in 2021. But to also serve the more pessimistic parts of our readership (believing in Murphy's law seems to be an occupational hazard among lawyers), we also asked the participants what is definitely not going to be a trend in 2021. As expected, those answers turned out to be way more fun.

Enjoy it. Get inspired.

1. Alternative legal service providers | Smart contracts

What is going to be the most important legal tech trend in 2021?


In the UK, the continued rise of the Big Four in consultancy and managed legal services for corporates, also of course legal tech, which will support and grow fast from both these activities. With them, will be the growing presence of alternative legal services providers like Elevate, Integreon and United Lex.

Watch moves from legal data giants like Thomson Reuters. Among UK top 100-200 law firms, a trend to consolidation and roll-up plays, funded by VC and PE, resulting in more efficient technology/back-office infrastructure/processes, and fuelling the deployment of legal tech. And traditional law firms will use much more legaltech. And I hope the conceptual merging of legal tech with reg tech.

What is definitely not going to be a legal tech trend in 2021?


UK law firms of any size not using legal tech in some shape or form, for their own internal processes or in client service delivery. General counsel and corporate law departments not insisting that their panel law firms specify how they will use legal tech and alternative legal service processes in delivering their services.

The trend that I definitely hope is over for good is for those who have been shouting about blockchain/smart contracts being the answer to humanity’s problems when it’s obvious there are limited use cases for these technologies, and those who shout loudest have never actually used a smart contract or even seen one in action!

Mark Lewis, Senior Consultant in Macfarlanes LLP


2. Clearly differentiated legal technology | Unnecessary legal tech terms

What is going to be the most important legal tech trend in 2021?

I think we will see a more clear differentiator between what is actual technology that aids the legal field and people active in it, and what are really questions regarding work culture, legal culture if you will. We are already pretty familiar with the fact that culture change has to come first, but for some reason, culture is mixed together with topics on legal technology, and it doesn't have to. Interdisciplinary collaboration, rebel ideas, and work-life balance go hand in hand with technology but really need their own platform. At the same time, the legal technology tools need their own platform to be allowed to work and sell themselves without having to take the necessary culture change into account.

Currently, there are so many legal tech vendors out there that know more about legal culture than some lawyers and that is a bit backwards considering it's the lawyers who have to do the actual changing (there is no out of box culture you can just buy...)

I think 2021 is the year when more people feel they can contribute to the change in attitude and culture, even if they do not have an interest in the tech side of things, and we can get solid platforms for both important topics and let the vendors finally just sell their products without having to say "we know this assumes you've already adapted project management mindsets".

In addition, I think we will start to see more action and less fuzz and only discussion about legal tech. It's time to walk the walk in terms of streamlining workflows, creating proper budgets, and creating incentives for lawyers and fee-enablers to be part of that change. We've spent a lot of years preaching that innovation needs to include the user, and now I hope we can actually do that.

What is definitely not going to be a legal tech trend in 2021?


I really want us to be over and done with throwing "legal tech terms" around just for the sake of it. I don't want to spend another year feeling pressured to mention AI to get the point about legal technology tools across. Today it feels like nobody will listen to the "boring" tools if they aren't also offered a take on "how will AI affect my work?" It's like the legal industry won't eat their vegetables unless they are also offered dessert. But I'm also aware that we just said we need to create incentives and maybe we can get lawyers to learn Word inside and out if they then are offered AI solutions on top?

Malin Männikkö, Legal Technologist in DLA Piper Sweden

3. AI technology for legal services | Client Portals

What is going to be the most important legal tech trend in 2021?


The year 2020 has been an extraordinary year for technology adoption in legal service delivery, and will without doubt lay the basic premises for the 2021 legal tech trends.

The explosion in the use of distant communications tools like Teams, Zooms, Meet etc., will evolve from being an alternative means of communication to become sophisticated collaboration tools. Integrated microservices already exist as functionality in such communication tools, but we'll both see new and more advanced integrated tools and a major increase in the use of such tools to create more structured work processes and reap the fruits of transparency and collaboration during the service delivery.

After experiencing some sort of "AI-winter" through 2020, we will see that artificial intelligence will rise again to serve both legal service delivery and legal operations in 2021. The general development of AI technology, and especially the advance of deep learning language training models, has made major advances since AI last formed the core of legal tech solutions. The use of these training models will already this coming year start to transform the way providers and users of legal services are supported and served.

What is definitely not going to be a legal tech trend in 2021?

Finally, I believe we will see a shift in the digital interface between legal service providers and the users of legal services, moving from information portals with integrated services on the provider's side to internal integrated business process tools in the user's organizations, with the possibility to integrate access to lawyer expertise. This will also mean that we will see less use of the traditional "Client Portals" offered by the providers.

Knut-Magnar Aanestad, Founder at Sebra Lawtech

4. Legal design thinking & digital thinking | Automation of traditional legal services

What is going to be the most important legal tech trend in 2021?


Legal design thinking - Companies must transform from corporate, hierarchical organizations into ecosystems. An open culture needs accessible and well-designed legal documents (agreements, policies, etc.).

Digital thinking - In the world of the Internet of Things (IoT), emerging technologies (artificial intelligence, blockchain technology, and smart contracts) will become more and more important. Lawyers must be digitally-savvy and learn how to think like a programmer.

What is definitely not going to be a legal tech trend in 2021?

LegalTech tools that will automate traditional legal services (drafting and reviewing “old-style” legal agreements and other documents as well as the impact of technology on the delivery of traditional legal services).

Erik P.M. Vermeulen, Digital Professor, Video Gaming Lawyer, Middle-Aged Ultra Runner and Restaurant Owner from Netherlands


5. From conference to video call | Hot design models

What is going to be the most important legal tech trend in 2021?


I thought about your questions on that way to the airport this morning. I think the most important legal trend of 2020/2021 is actually pretty basic: the evolution of the conference call into video call (Zoom, Teams, Google Meet, etc.). This is a subtle but big change for lawyers who have gotten used to listening to voices in the ether on conference calls for the past decade or two. Many for the first time saw longtime clients in person, oftentimes in pyjamas. I have to think this ability to get closer have more intimate contact with clients is invaluable.

It also signals a shift into the future when one will be able to project one’s virtual presence to any location.

What is definitely not going to be a legal tech trend in 2021?


Hot desking models for lawyers. Like a “hoteling” model where no one has a designated room or desk.

Ling Wu Kong, Partner at Goulston & Storrs, New York

6. Back to technological basics | The importance of AI

What is going to be the most important legal tech trend in 2021?


Back To Basics. I believe Corona has opened people’s eyes to the wonders that is technology in its most basic form. Forcing legal professionals unto platforms like Slack and Microsoft Teams should really have given them the impression that there is probably 10 years of simple digitization that they have attempted to leapfrog, and these 10 years of simplicity holds an immense amount of value. Pick the lowest hanging fruits while you prepare for the robots, and you will find win after win to fuel your further digital journey. Technology is not hard, you just have to keep simple and go back-to-basics instead of dropping buzzwords and doing nothing.

What is definitely not going to be a legal tech trend in 2021?


I really really hope people are finally over the AI fad. Sitting in, on conference after conference, where people agree that AI is important, with 95% of participants having no idea what is going on, is a waste of time for an industry that usually charge for every 6 minutes of doing stuff. The general consensus that AI is the only technology worthy of the legal industry is faulty, and if it were true, it would be pretty awesome if we had more conferences that gave an “AI 101” introduction, instead of insanely complicated stuff, trying to determine who is at fault if an oil tanker controlled by a “Robot” crashes into a bridge.

For anyone interested in actually discovering machine learning and AI, this is your very first lesson;

If: You still prefer to sign agreements by printing them out;
Then: Stop talking about AI, and do a course in data science instead.

Anders Spile, Director of Business Development in Contractbook from Denmark (Ok, we couldn’t help it. We had to hear out Anders, who has contributed with such original thoughts the past years as why legal tech is over-hyped and why we need more fluid lawyers).

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