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Why I’m Still Passionate About Legal Tech

by AJ Shankar

AJ Shankar, Founder and CEO, Everlaw

My first exposure to legal technology was as a Ph.D. student in Computer Science at UC Berkeley. A law firm with a Berkeley office needed a technical expert, and I fit the bill. For a few years, I moonlighted as a technical consultant, working closely with a partner at the firm. I saw firsthand the issues faced by lawyers—massive quantities of data, tight timelines and budgets, hard technical problems—and I was hooked.

To address these challenges, I co-founded Everlaw in 2011 with a law firm partner, who was excited to pair his expertise in litigation with my expertise in technology. I wrote code in the bedroom of my North Berkeley apartment. When I hired our first employee, Joel, he set up shop in my dining room. Since then, the company has grown significantly: we even recently received a significant investment from top venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz.

This year marks five years of living and breathing legal technology, and you might expect my enthusiasm to have cooled. Not so. I’m more excited than ever about what’s in store for the industry, and here’s why.

Legal expectations for software are increasing—and that’s a good thing.

Cloud adoption continues to rise as more law firms and legal departments are exposed to the price, security, and performance advantages of cloud software that have won over consumers and other industries. Software should update itself frequently, should be resistant to a host of security attacksshould perform well even as data sets grow to multiple terabytes, and should have low upfront and maintenance costs.

As lawyers grow accustomed to the superior experiences of their iPhones, Androids, and touchscreen laptops, they look for that dazzling combination of cutting-edge technology and elegant product design in their legal tech software as well. Enterprise legal tech can cost thousands of dollars a month, and users often spend days on end in the software. It should be easy to use, should look beautiful, should leverage the same modern technology that powers Google—or even Netflix. I love this vision and believe that our users should have just as great an experience with Everlaw as they do on their iPhones.

We are just scratching the surface of the hardest legal tech problems.

Microsoft has over 50,000 engineers. Imagine if we—the legal tech industry—had that magnitude of development power to put toward the hardest legal problems in artificial intelligence and machine learning, search, data visualization, collaboration, scale, and more. We don’t, but we’ll still tackle those same problems; it’ll just take longer. The good news is that this means the best is yet to come: we as an industry are still making our way to the frontiers of computer science, and you can bet that your legal tech experience in 2020 is going to be a world apart from what it is today. I’m excited to get to work on creating that future.

Legal workflows are just beginning to modernize.

Law is a collaborative, iterative endeavor. As a programmer accustomed to automated and robust workflow tools, I was astounded five years ago to learn how much of litigation happens with physical binders, pen and paper, and giant Excel spreadsheets, and how hard these tools make it to collaborate. Not much has changed since then—but it’s going to. Products like Microsoft Office 365, Box, and the software Everlaw makes, enable richer, more reliable collaboration and result in dramatic cost savings and efficiency gains.

The more we study lawyers’ workflow habits, the more opportunities we see for improvement. In a few years, you’ll look back on the current state of affairs and wonder how you ever lived without modern workflow tools, just as you now probably wonder how you ever lived without email or Google.

We have the opportunity, and responsibility, to improve how lawyers spend the minutes of their professional lives. I don’t know any lawyer who signed up for the gig to push papers around or email back and forth different red-lined versions of the same document. The aim is a world where the tools work together so seamlessly that lawyers don’t have to worry about being technologists, and can instead focus on the law. I think we can get there, and I’m excited for the journey.