Updated: Jun 9, 2021
By Kenneth Jones. Chief Technologist Tanenbaum Keale LLP. (Legal Operators Series)
Anyone who follows the legal tech industry surely has noticed the emergence of “no/low code” offerings in the vertical. It’s easy to understand why, there are many forward-thinking professionals eager to develop applications optimizing legal ops which are cheaper and easier to build. Empowering non-programmers who possess a keen understanding of the salient business issues is one way to accomplish that objective.
That last point alone sounds appealing to many -- it’s somewhat akin to using self-checkout to bypass the checkout line at your local superstore, managing your 401K without a broker, or arranging a vacation absent the assistance of a travel agent. It’s an approach many lean towards in today’s do-it-yourself world.
But what exactly is the “no/low code” approach? Perhaps it helps to start with a formal definition. The website TechTarget.com offers the following on that front:
“Low-code/no-code development platforms are types of visual software development environments that allow enterprise developers and citizen developers to drag and drop application components, connect them together and create mobile or web apps.”
How do we translate this to something meaningful to the typical legal operations professional? Here’s a few points:
The no/low approach allows legal professionals, attorneys, or paralegals alike, to become builders of legal applications once they develop familiarity with each platform.
You do not need to be a programmer to construct useful, functional applications.
However, there is a ceiling to what a non-programmer can accomplish. You’ll continue to require advanced programming assistance to incorporate sophisticated functionality (e.g. interfaces to other applications, customized software beyond what a core no/low code platform provides.
This foundation laid; what options are available in the legal market? Next, let’s identify key use cases related to the processing of matter data and legal workflows, the creation of documents and close with some benefits related to the integration of legal data between applications. But we’ll first begin by taking a quick look back in history to learn a bit about how the no/low code approach came to fruition.
No/low code may seem new to many, but the concept is decades old. Some trace the origins back to James Martin’s book, Application Development Without Programmers, published in, believe it or not, 1982.
In my career, development groups where I was a team member, both at Bristol-Myers Squibb and my current role (Chief Operating Officer of the Xerdict Group, a wholly owned subsidiary of Tanenbaum Keale LLP), used a philosophy known as Model View Controller (MVC) to construct modules allowing non-programmers to build systems. These allowed configuration experts to do things like create system entities (e.g. matter, law firm, task, calendar item), add fields to the entities and develop menus and reports without programmers.
Progress has accelerated at the approximate rate of Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes springing to life from the starting grid of an F1 Grand Prix during the past few years. Full featured development platforms like Salesforce Lightning, Microsoft Power Apps and Oracle APEX offering these services to law firms and institutional legal departments are increasingly common. Leading I.T. research company Forrester suggests more than 50% of developers will be using or planning to use no/low code approaches in 2020. And the corresponding emergence of tools focusing on the legal industry is quite noteworthy.
Now, you may be thinking this is all somewhat interesting, but how does it relate to me and my role within legal operations? Although there are many diverse answers to that question, here’s a quick look of a few leading examples in legal tech today.
Matter Data / Legal Workflows
To state the obvious, within corporate legal departments there are needs to track many types of complex matters. Litigation, intellectual property, labor and employment, marketing and licensing are but a few. Each area has their own unique needs (different fields, reports, workflows, etc.). Likewise, just about every legal department deals with its fair share of issues that require application of complex, multijurisdictional rules to facts that vary from one incident to the next.
Building sophisticated case management systems can be challenging. Technical resources and funding are often difficult to secure. That’s where no/low approaches can help. Tools allowing attorneys or paralegals to construct, using plug-and-play like components, empower legal operations professionals to track and manage matters with the tracking fields unique to each matter type. Those same tools can be used to build automated advisors that ask questions, apply rules, and provide answers—and even legal advice—to common questions. (Think what Turbo Tax does with the Internal Revenue Code.)
One industry expert, Jeffrey Sharer of LexShift, uses these tools to develop legal operations applications. A representative example might be the LexShift Data Breach Advisor, an application built on a low-code platform that automates the interview, analysis, legal advice, and documentation for millions of potential data-breach fact patterns under more than 50 state and federal laws. These add value within legal operations in many ways, Sharer explains:
By empowering legal professionals to build process and subject-matter expertise into software, various platforms make it possible to deliver automated analysis and legal advice simultaneously to any number of clients, or for one client to run through any number of scenarios at no incremental cost.
Often in law, facts are straightforward and all a client needs is someone—or something—that knows the rules and can apply them to those facts. Building the rules into applications enables clients to self-serve on routine issues and allows them to address a broader range of incidents, including some that wouldn't warrant the time and cost of bespoke analysis and advice, all in the same reliable, consistent manner.
Applications like these have tremendous appeal to legal operations professionals because when they’re well executed, they result in better, faster, and less-costly legal services—in other words, sizeable gains on all three sides of the so-called “impossible triangle.”
One final quick thought in this area. There are many providers in this space. Each shifts the paradigm much closer to the “legal tech built by lawyers” end state, one which is very much in vogue throughout the industry.
A second use case surrounds the creation of documents for a specific legal purpose. One great example all of us lay people can relate to is estate planning. In this area, the “end goal” is to create documents sets with artifacts like a last will and testament, living wills and advanced directives or creations of trusts.
Products to automate legal workflows, with the goal of converting template documents into intelligent workflows which provide users with user-friendly questions and prompts, can dramatically slash drafting time.
“Dorna Moini, CEO of Documate, one of the impressive start-ups in this space, is one of the thought leaders in this emerging area. To help explain the essence of the value proposition in this area, Moini offers the following comments:
“For lawyers, automating legal documents allows them not only to save time, but also to engage in new legal service delivery models. Where the billable hour was previously a cap on revenue, creating client-facing automated workflows to generate documents means that lawyers can offer flat fees, subscriptions, and unbundled legal services. Or, they can create document-generating tools that serve as lead-generators for their law firms.
Automating template-based work also doesn't mean the end of junior associate training. In fact, it can be used to raise the bar on junior associate skill enhancement. For example, last summer, Documate worked with Wilson Sonsini summer associates (link to Bloomberg article here) to build out automated "bots" to help lawyers answer legal questions and generate documents. Partners and associates in different practice groups organized the templates and rules. Then, summer associates built out the tools on Documate over the course of the summer, helping them learn the law, embrace technology, and provide immediate value to the firm. These tools and others the firm is building are being used by WSGR attorneys and clients.”
All in all, the key takeaway of this section is that no/low code methodologies are not constrained only to what some might refer to as “computer systems”. Automating and streamlining the generation of client-oriented documents sets in various legal practice areas is another awesome use-case for this technology within legal operations.
There are other plays in this area adding built-in integration to common legal software tools as part of the value play in the no/low arena. For example, the Thomson Reuters no/low offering, HighQ, offers some benefits.
More specifically, in addition to offering their self-build set of tools with a decidedly legal slant, the HighQ platform also provides connectors to leading legal software products like IMANAGE, NetDocuments, Docusign, Microsoft Office, Elite, etc… To cite a mainstream example in our field, it’s highly beneficial for a matter management system to transfer, in an automated seamless manner, any document updates back to the document management system of record (e.g. IMANAGE or NetDocuments), and vice versa of course.
Imran Aziz, London based Thomson Reuters Manager Product Management for HighQ, is an expert in the various connectors offered within their platform. To further explain the value clients enjoy with these benefits, Ariz offers the following perspective.
“HighQ’s integration strategy is to facilitate clients in achieving their end-to-end digital journey with little or no effort. This is accomplished with in-application features, or by partnering with integrators to provide the capability.
Our thought process is that we’re delivering a switchboard where HighQ makes connections to existing client applications to create and complete a circuit. And as we do that, we strive to build in a manner where connectivity can be ported to all clients.
One example is the SeeUnity based integration to document management systems. Via this connector, HighQ triggers functions to allow users to choose which documents which sync back to the DMS system, all within the HighQ interface. Similar functionality is delivered in the eSign area.”
The true beauty of this approach is that configuration parameters, within a host platform, provide end users with end-to-end integration to core legal aps without having to commission any custom code to accomplish this objective. switch which can be templated using our strong solution templating capabilities and the end user gets a coherent experience without having to write any code to achieve their goal. That’s the key benefit of built-in platform integration.
Where Does This Leave Us
Looking back in time, we note how Microsoft Office empowered legal folks to build functional data tracking tools (e.g. case lists in Excel or Word, for example), not unlike how tools such as WordPress or Google Sites empower non-programmers to build attractive websites. In my world, I’ve seen firsthand how internally developed versions of no/low tech helps Tanenbaum Keale track client litigation data, documents and improve legal workflows. And today, many legal software providers continue to further streamline legal processes via the no/low code approach in many functional areas.
There’s no doubt no/low code is a critical element of the cresting wave of automation driving improvement within legal function. Of course, it is not the final answer to these issues, but a notable step forward for sure.
Perhaps the most valuable benefit is this closing thought. As more members of the legal operations community take up the laboring oar on more sophisticated application builds, this frees up the legal tech development community to tackle even more challenging areas, benefiting our field in heretofore unimaginable ways.
Although these opportunities are too numerous to note, some high-potential areas surely are the use of artificial intelligence, process automation, further migration to the cloud, improved enterprise search, use of net neural, blockchain and of course the critically important task of ensuring cyber security plans are constantly adjusted to meet ever-changing needs in this area.
About the Author
Mr. Jones oversees various aspects of technology at Tanenbaum Keale LLP in the role of Chief Technologist. He leads efforts to support TK’s computing environment and infrastructure, one that features a strategy of professionally protecting and processing client data in the Cloud with highly skilled and respected leading-edge business partners in the technology space. Additionally, Mr. Jones helps lead and support various TK programs in the areas of security, compliance, business continuity and firm administration.
Mr. Jones also serves as Chief Operating Officer of TK-owned SaaS company Xerdict Group LLC. Xerdict Group LLC is a software company which provides a wide variety of internet-based technologies to TK clients including case management systems, discovery applications and document repositories. At Xerdict Group LLC, he directs application development, database analysis and network operations to construct and operate powerful, customizable systems that support the litigation case management, e-discovery and related business needs of internal and external clients. As a wholly owned software company, Xerdict Group LLC is able to leverage its Oracle based technology and source code to provide clients with exceptional systems at highly competitive costs.
Prior to his work with law firms, Mr. Jones served as a Director of Technology at Bristol-Myers Squibb Company leading an Applications Development organization. In that capacity, he supported a wide variety of legal functions within the $20 billion company for legal departments including litigation, intellectual property, internal investigations, compensation/stock options and other legal functions.
Mr. Jones has developed innovative solutions, both in a law firm and corporate legal environment, for over twenty years.