Legaltech.se, an interview with its Founding Father
Fredrik, you are one of the founding fathers of the legal tech community in Sweden, Legaltech.se. What inspired you to start Legaltech.se?
Well, I’ve been covering law and technology as well as the Swedish market for legal services for various magazines since I was in law school, almost twenty years ago. Even back then, it struck me as odd that there was basically zero interest for innovation or startup competitions among my peers. Especially since the law school I attended at Stockholm University is renowned for legal informatics.
We now have the technology to put ideas and theories, which have been around since at least the 50s, into practice. And that’s not a minute to late as we can’t expect to fix the increasingly pressing access to justice problem without technology and innovation.
I noticed innovation projects being launched by governments, bar associations, universities, courts, startups and law firms around the world, but very few in Sweden. Again it struck me as odd – we are after all a fairly progressive country with a strong startup culture and liberal rules for the legal sector. Nobody seemed to notice that Sweden started to lag behind not only the US and the UK, but also smaller jurisdictions such as the Netherlands, Finland and Estonia. There was little discussion about tech among lawyers and only a few small events and sometimes the odd news piece on legal tech.
Speaking of the media, I figured legal tech would be too obscure or esoteric for the publications I usually write for. When I noticed the domain legaltech.se was available I decided to write about legal tech as a side project to inspire and to spread awareness. I spent about six months researching, networking and building the site. I went to conferences in London, met up with lawyers in Asia, arranged interviews with scholars in the US and so on. And when I launched the site it kind of took off. Now there’s an innovation prize, sponsors, a podcast and surveys. There are also seminars and a meetup group in the works.
Is Legaltech.se an open community or better how can someone join and become a community member?
It’s not really a formal community in that sense. Like LegalBusinessWorld it is an open initiative. Anyone is welcome to contribute, and seminars will be open to anyone who’s interested.
Does Legaltech.se also have an international focus, and are there any partnerships with similar initiatives in Europe and maybe US?
I collaborate with Richard Tromans, editor of Artificiallawyer.com, and Peter Wright, managing director at DigitallawUK. We run a podcast called ‘I, Lawyer’, and we exchange ideas and the occasional article. Legaltech.se also has ties with Legal Hackers and ELTA, among others. And as we speak I’m in Amsterdam at Lexpo 2017, the international legal innovation event in the Netherlands.
In what respect you think the Swedish legal tech community differs from other European legal tech communities? And how does it differ from US, or even Asian Pacific communities?
I think in terms of maturity and focus we have a lot of catching up to do, and I don’t have a good answer as to why that is. Yes, the market is smaller, but that doesn’t explain why progress has been slow compared to other parts of continental Europe.
Things are changing rapidly though. There’s less skepticism and more interest and enthusiasm. There are new research projects and reports, law firms are employing new tools and there is generally more awareness. I’m still waiting for the government and the bar association to start promoting innovation though.
Looking at your target group, do you target your information and activities to small, medium and big law and is there a difference (besides the average spend) in product and service needs between small, medium and big law?
I’m currently working on a survey to find out. As far as I know, bigger firms are starting to invest in AI systems and there are a few small(er) firms experimenting with ”alternative” business models.
Can you inform our readers about some interesting LegalTech ventures or innovations in Sweden or other parts of Scandinavia?
Sure. Many of them are listed under ”Årets innovatörer” at legaltech.se. Avtal24 and VQ are the most well known in Sweden; both have been around for a while. Avtal24 offers contracts online, VQ offer document automation to law firms. Most of our major law firms use it. Scrive and Egree are doing well in the e-signature business. Swiftcourt is an online dispute resolution platform for smaller purchases. DPOrganizer, a GDPR compliance tool, is expanding from Sweden to Europe. Outside of Sweden, I think TrademarkNow, an AI-based tool for analyzing trademark registrations, is really interesting.
There is a lot of discussion ongoing about disruption in the legal market: a big bang against incremental chance, AI and Robots who are on the verge of taking over legal work and so on. What are your thoughts on this?
Does anyone really take the ”robots will replace lawyers” headlines seriously though? I think the general consensus is that machines will augment humans and reduce mindless drudgework. Some tasks will be automated, obviously, but the market for legal services will also expand.
I do however think it’s easy to scoff at the notion of the legal profession changing if one makes the assumption that the way we deal with legal problems will remain fundamentally unchanged. Nobody is suggesting replacing judges with wig-wearing androids. Instead, we’re developing IT driven solutions that might make court hearings or legal advice more efficient, less time consuming or even obsolete.. Such as blockchain-based smart contracts, tools that predict court rulings, ODR platforms, digital marketplaces and DIY services.
Furthermore, legal tech not single item. Digitalization is about everything from abandoning the fax machine to chatbots to distributing expertise through machine learning. I do believe in evolution rather than disruption, but I also believe the legal profession and the business of law will be virtually unrecognizable in the long term. The legal training I’ve had already feels archaic and primitive.
The legal profession is changing and professionals need to be more business and tech savvy. What do you think about this change and what do you see as the biggest challenge for the legal professional in let’s say five years from now?
This is a tricky one. Some argue there’s no need for IT skills, as tools will become increasingly user friendly. Others think lawyers will need to think more like techies to be able to understand the client’s needs and to grasp the possibilities and limitations of technology in general.
I took some coding courses as a kid and I played around with building computers, creating bulletin board systems and websites etc. That shaped and still shapes the way I think about law, technology and society. Should lawyers learn coding? It’s probably a waste of time in most cases. A general understanding of how computers work never hurts though. With this I don’t mean learning how to start a Facebook account or create a PDF file, but understanding about how computers process information and maybe also how organizations use data. Some law schools have adopted this way of reasoning and now have forward-thinking projects and programs aimed at future-proofing their students.
Do you think there is a differences between the US and the European legal startup market? And how do you see the Asia Pacific region in this context?
I’ve met up with people in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok and other Asian countries; I’ve read about the development of the Asian market and in a nutshell; I think there’s a lot of creativity and entrepreneurship, perhaps sometimes hindered by stiff, protective rules, and I think we can expect more innovations from Asia then we see right now.
Concerning US and Europe; I don’t think of it as US vs. Europe, I think of it as US, UK and Australia vs. continental Europe. Startups targeting the former jurisdictions target vastly bigger markets. Take Seal Software – they have an office in Sweden but market their products exclusively to English-speaking jurisdictions.
In the US, there’s a lot more happening at the law schools than in Sweden. Lots of startups are spinoffs from universities. There are also more innovation centers and hubs. Some businesses, such as RocketLawyer, have a huge advantage having built reputation and momentum in the home market, and are now exporting products to Europe.
What advice would you give the young legal professional or aspiring legal entrepreneur about starting a company and/or working for a legal startup?
(Hmmm) I don’t think I’m in a position to give advice. Maybe one day there will be established career paths for lawyers in legal tech, maybe not. Maybe we’ll all wish we jumped on the bandwagon more earlier, then again maybe not. Remember how uncertain the future of the Internet seemed in the 90s? Hindsight is 20/20.
I'll say this though: As someone who always felt that the legal profession is a bit inefficient and backwards, it’s satisfying watching it change. And, developing new tools, apps and other IT driven solutions could probably be very rewarding for the right person.
About Frederik Svärd
Fredrik Svärd is a lawyer specialized in media and IT and holds a degree in communication. He is one of the founders of Legaltech.se
He’s a former editor in chief of Sweden’s largest online publication for lawyers and the founder of Legaltech.se as well as the Swedish Legal Innovation Awards and the podcast I, Lawyer.
He has written about legal matters and the legal business for various magazines for two decades and is a PR and communications advisor for various legal companies and organizations.