Legal Technology

Blockchain, project management, AI score among top legal innovations in prof's index

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Daniel Linna Jr.

Daniel W. Linna Jr.

What’s the buzz in BigLaw legal tech? Blockchain, project management and artificial intelligence are dominant topics, according to Michigan State University law professor Daniel W. Linna Jr.

On Tuesday, Linna launched the website Legal Services Innovation Index, which tracks the frequency of tech terms on law-firm websites.

“It’s a starting point. It’s a way to measure innovation,” says Linna, a law professor in residence and director of Michigan State’s LegalRnD center. Linna also is teaching negotiation this fall at the University of Michigan Law School.

Linna’s attempt to capture the technology zeitgeist reflects several emerging legal specialties. Law firms drawing the most hits in Google queries were European giant Eversheds Sutherland, with automotive and cybersecurity practices; Seattle’s Davis Wright Tremaine, which organized a team last year around the blockchain technology that underlies bitcoin, and Littler Mendelson, a U.S. employment law boutique that scored highly on project management themes.

A law firm index attempts to measure frequent use of multiple tech topics. Top-tier tech firms in this index—which Linna emphasizes is not a ranking—are Mayer Brown, K&L Gates and DLA Piper.

But scraping legal websites for phrases like “design thinking” or “smart contracts” is a method with limits. “Does this mean the bigger firms are just better at marketing? If you have a blockchain practice group in a menu on every page of the website, you may be getting false positives,” Linna admits. “The perfectionist in me doesn’t want to put that out. But there’s definitely a trend behind what law firms are discussing in their own forums.”

To quantify which firms are actually walking the talk on tech, Linna started a companion catalog of law firm innovations in products, services or consulting. Linna and four assistants found the most activity in due diligence, compliance and e-discovery.

“There is concrete evidence of innovation in the catalog,” Linna says. “We are seeing adoption in expert systems and artificial intelligence and alternative fees. Law firms are delivering innovation to their customers.”

The website audit was limited to firms in the Am Law 200 and Global 200, plus the Lexpert Canadian Top 30. A data visualization of the results suggests differences among regions. Project management is broadly popular among American firms, while AI ranks highest among multinational firms based in the United Kingdom and China. Am Law 51-150 firms were more likely to cite topics such as legal operations or alternative fees.

The project launched with a focus on automation products and pro bono services, then expanded to corporate innovations. Linna contends that a wide range of practices now use technology to control costs or risks. “These problems are much more the same than they are different,” he says. “Technology allows us to build more productivity into our practice.”

The catalog is largely built on published sources, and includes a link for submitting additions. “It’s the start of a discussion,” Linna says. “I want people to pitch in and make this a great resource.”

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