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Scope for Innovations in Legal Tech : From the Desk of a Managing Partner

Ankita, 42, is a senior partner at a law firm in a Tier 1 city. The law firm primarily works in the areas of Intellectual Property (IP) Law and Corporate Law - helping corporates and startups build their IP strategy, handling mergers and acquisitions, general advisory, real estate investments and overall litigation. Along with other senior partners, Ankita leads the business development and all managerial, strategic and administrative tasks of the firm, with a team of 8-10 employees that report to her. To ensure a work-life balance she typically starts her work day around 8 am and aims to wrap up by 6 pm. About 20% of her time goes to administrative and managerial tasks while the rest of the time is focused on legal duties such as contract creation, drafting and vetting, overseeing due diligence for the same, litigation preparation and representing clients, advisory for clients etc. She prefers to spend her mornings drafting and reviewing documents, before moving on to other decision making tasks that need her attention.

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ankita has reinvented the firm’s business development approach with singular focus on digital outreach, revamping the firm’s website, and constantly encouraging her team of lawyers to create curated content. Despite few challenges in engaging her legal team to work outside their comfort zone, Ankita strongly believes that insights from lawyers in legal content will bring maximum value for the readers. The positive feedback received from clients and peers alike has also given her the confidence to keep the function inhouse as she feels more comfortable retaining control on the outreach.

Infusion of Technology for Lawyers and Law Firms

Over the years, Ankita and other partners in the firm have onboarded and adopted multiple technology tools to save time and increase efficiency. Since most of the team is under the age of 40, technology adoption hasn’t been a huge challenge for them. If anything, she admits, she is the one to call on a team member to assist her with the softwares they use from time to time.

At present, there are two major legal tech tools that are operational in the firm. One is a customised software built for the IP team, enabling them to adhere to highly sensitive timelines and ensure clients’ requirements are fulfilled. This software is also used for invoicing of the firm as a whole. Ankita recounts that the customisation process took about 6 to 8 months to be completed. While they had procured the software from a large established company, Ankita is quite hopeful for the startups to disrupt the legal ecosystem with similar and better products. Additionally, they also use a startup’s services for their litigation needs, so her confidence in startups is backed in practice as well.

Another significant load that has been lifted recently is that of legal due diligence. Each diligence would need a team of 6-7 lawyers manually procuring and going through documents one at a time. Recently startups have come up that provide legal due diligence as a service, and at a miniscule cost.

The Missing Elements

1. Document drafting and proofreading tool

Ankita estimates that about 15-20% of a lawyer’s time goes towards drafting, proofreading and reviewing exercises including revisions and iterations of various documents. While she is actively exploring such a solution for her team, she prefers to onboard these services from unsolicited offers initiated by services providers as it gives her a clear idea of what exactly the provider has to offer. It saves her time from seeking and sifting through multiple companies.

2. Document translation

A major pain point for lawyers and law firms, translation solutions are a big opportunity area for solution providers. Ankita concurs that while there are translation service providers available, they often take a long time to deliver to add to considerable time spent in scouting them. Acceptability by the judiciary is another challenge, given the availability of certified translators within the court complexes, although manual work can be time consuming.

3. Legal due diligence in real estate

Even with the emergence of startups in this area, the diligence of real estate remains unsolved for. Despite the massive digitisation efforts led by the government, the process to procure documents remains largely physical and requires one to wait for appointments and visits to the registrar’s office, Ankita says. Property being a state subject, the filing systems also vary across states, requiring additional efforts in certain geographies, thus adding to the time cost.

4. Electronic evidence

Getting courts to accept electronic evidence (digitally signed documents / agreements) in many cases remains a challenge. As more e-signing and contract management solutions come up from startups, they need to ensure that these are accepted by the Indian judiciary as evidence, for startups to witness adoption at scale. As the courts go back to the physical hearings after pandemic restrictions ease, the anxiety and uncertainty was clearly audible in Ankita’s voice.

5. Lack of emphasis on legal research

Ankita is also in charge of hiring for her team and typically hires from 5-6 specific colleges around the city which emphasise on training their students for legal research. She also validates that this is not a common practice amongst law schools and thinks it to be a disadvantage to the students. When asked about why a background in research is so important when recruiting, Ankita states quite factually that it reduces her work by almost 50% when someone comes in with a research training background.

Increase in Tech Adoption

Ankita candidly confessed that she did not expect the judiciary to take up technology in a rapid way. The pandemic has accelerated this adoption, saving significant time and effort for all stakeholders. Traditionally in litigation lawyers would often end up spending an entire day at the court without certainty of their case getting called to the bench, keeping them away from their office. With the increasing penetration of the virtual court systems, lawyers are able to file a lot of documents online. As an additional measure they are also able to email documents to the court clerks who ensure the judges receive the same. The virtual hearing system has also made room for pre-allocated time slots given to the judges, maximising the time saved.

Opportunities for Startups

According to Ankita, the need of the hour is to have online softwares or tools, trained by Artificial Intelligence (AI) and natural language processing (NLP), that can accurately translate from vernacular languages or Hindi into English. The gap may remain in getting it accepted by courts and startups could work with courts directly to address the same. Similarly, solutions to address real estate due diligence could benefit not only lawyers but also citizens in their property transactions.

There is also scope for startups building research tools to approach law schools as potential customers as it would not only solve the issue of scale and sustainability for them but also ensure that the ecosystem sees an influx of well trained lawyers.

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