Smarter design for more efficient legal service delivery

The more I think about this challenge, the more I believe it is becoming a design challenge. In particular, I am really interested in how interaction design can be applied to digital risk management to revolutionise our legal and compliance interactions.

Alex Hamilton published a terrific post on the radiant.law blog about addressing legal service delivery inefficiencies. His post is titled “Creating Standards” and, although it is probably aimed more at lawyers, he touches on an important aspect of risk management:

Standard documents are a necessary, if not sufficient, start to fixing the inefficiencies of legal service delivery. For in-house teams in particular, pulling standards together, whether form agreements, playbooks or other tools, can be a real challenge; especially as the day to day reality of “more-for-less” overwhelms long term projects.

I’ve maintained for some time now that effective risk management is more than just about documents. The real value is in the insights that go into how legal frameworks are structured and how they function. Lawyers whose business models depend on selling contracts are going to find it pretty difficult to survive (if they aren’t already). I keep seeing new services popping up online which offer more and more sophisticated legal document assembly options (one of my clients is doing some very interesting work in this space) which are becoming easier to use and much more affordable than conventional legal services.

Developing smarter legal frameworks has a lot more to do with knowledge and information management with an emphasis on smarter solutions. radiant.law is part of a new wave of legal services firms which place more emphasis on value and discarding convention that exists for its own sake. I think my eyes roll involuntarily every time I hear a lawyer object to something I propose merely because what I suggest runs contrary to “the way things have always been done”.

Many lawyers are stuck in mind-numbing ruts. They resort to laborious workflows and document models with little thought about whether they are still relevant or whether there are more effective solutions for clients’ solutions. One of the other blogs I subscribe to is Adams on Contract Drafting through which Ken Adams challenges legal writing conventions and approaches. I find myself reading contracts I receive from other lawyers to review and even many of my older document models and becoming increasingly frustrated with convoluted and repetitive language. One of my mantras at the moment is “simplicity” and each time I work through a legal document, it becomes an opportunity to simplify the wording and structure.

It doesn’t stop there. The process of simplifying your digital risk management extends to technologies you use to manage your resources. I like Hamilton’s suggestions to use search to index and organise; wikis to constantly improve your framework models; treat your legal framework development model like an open source development model and “release early, release often” and, of course, create better standard document models.

Inefficient legal service delivery is increasingly a design challenge. In particular, I am really interested in how interaction design can be applied to digital risk management to revolutionise our legal and compliance interactions. This video titled “Connecting“, below, blew my mind about a year ago. I think it hints at a possible future for the work people like Hamilton and I do.

Open sourcing legal documents

I thought I was being relatively radical and progressive when I wrote about how the approaching legal documents business singularity but it seems I was just joining a crowd of progressives. Two recent posts caught my attention recently which illustrate this growing trend.

In the first post, titled “Standardizing (vs. Reforming) Contract Drafting“, William Carlton talks about open sourcing legal documents by opening up law firm precedent banks to the general public. In his response to a post on Koncision blog arguing that legal documents open sourcing just isn’t happening in a meaningful way, Carlton said the following:

Ken, I really mean open sourcing, not crowd sourcing. The place to start (I think) is to simply “out” the template banks that every law firm keeps. 2007 was the dark ages, in web terms; it will not be possible to keep templates off the web much longer. And business lawyers shouldn’t try. (Prediction: the most successful won’t.) The profession should embrace transparency and move on to charging clients for counseling, negotiating, customizing. Not for unveiling the boilerplate.

Carlton points to news that international legal group, DLA Piper, reportedly intends dropping the walled garden around its precedents which it restricted to its clients (a major legal group already sharing its precedents with its clients). The Koncision post was partly in response to an earlier post by Carlton titled “Open Sourcing Legal Docs” which explores the idea of making legal precedents publicly available as part of a broader process of identifying best practices and almost standardizing sets of documents based on those best practices. Carlton concludes that post with the following observation:

And the legal profession will do just fine. Right now the industry is still behaving as though there is proprietary value in standard boilerplate documents, and the opposite is true: there is tremendous public value in the documents, and unleashing that value helps clients and lawyers alike. The sustainable proprietary value is in counseling what, when, how, and why not or why something else instead.

The other post which inspired this post is the second part of a series of posts titled “Developing CAD for Law” on the Contract Analysis and Standards blog. This second post talks about how legal documents have an almost modular construction and the goal of a contract development platform would be to take blocks of text or clauses that can be combined, forming coherent legal documents appropriate for specific circumstances. I pointed out a service which does something similar in my previous post. Another interesting approach is a comparative approach to certain types of documents aimed at distilling the best clauses to be incorporated into the intended document. The example I came across is a template for an End User License Agreement on the kiiac site.

This all points to an increasing shift away from document-based legal services to what the legal services business should be: applying legal knowledge to specific situations and formulating effective legal frameworks to meet clients’ needs. Legal documents become analogous to software applications with variable functionality. The real value is in the knowledge and skill that produces not only those applications but also develops the appropriate and broader framework.

I mentioned in my previous post that I will be releasing my documents under a Creative Commons license. I have selected the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 South Africa License for my documents and my first release under the “web.tech.law legal docs” brand is an agreement for photographers which I published to the web.tech.law Facebook page yesterday evening. This first document is available for free although future documents be paid “apps”. I will expand this offering in due course to include a support model for these documents. The document is available for download and comes with an explanatory note:

Explanatory Note – Photographer Terms and Conditions

Photographer Terms and Conditions

Automated contracts, free legal documents and the singularity

I wrote about the coming legal practice singularity recently. Legal practice is changing rapidly and the prospect of a sufficiently advanced artificial intelligence to start taking over many legal research and similar tasks is fascinating. Unfortunately for many lawyers the wait may not be quite as long as it may take for such artificial intelligence to arrive on the scene.

IBM machine, City Hall

Lawyers are accustomed to services that offer standard contracts for reduced prices. Some retailers and bookstores have been selling common agreements like leases and powers of attorney for quite some time now and there are a number of online options too, including Law Unlocked which was pointed out to me today. The next step is a site which promises a DIY solution which should scare lawyers who rely on legal documents themselves for their fee income.

A Desktop Lawyer screenshot

Desktop Lawyer offers a self-service option to customers whereby they can have fairly complex agreements like shareholders agreements prepared for them by answering a series of questions. The process is apparently so dynamic that you actually see the document take shape as you work through the questions. The end result is a document that goes beyond the current “one size fits all” model because the service’s users will be able to download a fairly customised agreement that better suits their specific needs. This is unlikely to be the end of the road for the technology and we will likely see more and more advanced solutions that will replace lawyers whose focus is document production as an end in itself. In other words, the market for “search and replace” precedents will give way to these sorts of smarter and more cost effective solutions.

This likely future touches on my thoughts about the current legal services model and the very real need for lawyers to rethink the value proposition in their work. The days of value being based on time or documents are just about over and lawyers who can’t adapt will struggle to survive. The value in legal services is in lawyers’ knowledge of the law and how to use the law to develop appropriate and effective legal frameworks for clients. The documents reflecting or embodying those frameworks are worth about as much as the paper they are printed on.

In keeping with this emerging reality, I am rethinking what my clients will be charged for going forward. We will start removing documents as line items in our invoices and effectively treat them as free. Documents we produce for our clients will be released to those clients under a Creative Commons license to enable clients to make more flexible use of those documents and I am working on a service for clients which will effectively release fairly standard documents to participating clients as a value add at no charge for the documents themselves. I am still working on the parameters of this pseudo-open source approach to legal practice and will ensure that important considerations like client confidentiality and custom legal frameworks are adequately protected but the days of charging for relatively standard legal documents are coming to an end.