Spearheading the incubation of legal technology in the EU: A new role for bar associations?

By Irene Ng (Huang Ying)

As the legal community grapples with the influx of disruptive legal technologies, the Paris Bar Association had already started preparing itself for these developments through the L’incubateur du barreau de Paris, an arm of the Paris Bar Association that is tasked with “promoting and supporting legal innovation.” L’incubateur does this in two different ways. Through the Innovation Award, L’incubateur supports the top two disruptive technologies of the year by rewarding them with a prize sum. Furthermore, the organization keeps track of regulatory developments, so as to ensure the provision of quality legal services and access to justice.

L’incubateur du barreau de Paris is one of the few bar associations in the EU at present that has decided to support and encourage legal technology. However, with the growing awareness of legal tech and as legal tech companies gain traction in the EU market, it would not be surprising to see other bar associations stepping in to promote or advocate the regulation of legal technology. In September 2016, Germany held a conference on the future of the legal profession vis-à-vis disruptive legal technology in Cologne (i.e. the Anwaltszukunftskongress), where speakers at the conference included representatives from the Federal German Bar Association and other stakeholders in the German legal industry.

These developments in the EU show that there are some interesting questions to consider. Firstly, will bar associations in other parts of France and the EU follow in the footsteps of the Paris Bar Association and launch their own local versions of L’incubateur? Legal tech contains a very broad spectrum of technologies, ranging from e-discovery to legal database searches to online dispute resolution (“ODR”). Some of these technologies improve efficiency in law firms, while others disrupt the legal industry by substituting tech for the traditional jobs of lawyers. Bar associations may thus find it more and more pressing to become involved in the legal tech scene to either ensure that legal services provided by such disruptive legal tech companies are of a good quality, and to help its members to remain competitive and innovative in this rapidly changing world.

The next question would be the extent in which bar associations should spearhead the incubation of legal technology. L’incubateur du barreau de Paris teamed up with Sciences Po’s School of Law to produce a joint study on the innovation in the legal profession (published in French in December 2015 as l’innovation dans la profession d’avocat), while in Germany, Bucerius Law School worked with the Boston Consulting Group instead to produce a report on “How Legal Technology Will Change the Future of Law”. As legal education at an accredited university is usually strongly linked to the successful admission of a lawyer to a bar association (since most lawyers are required to complete a prescribed legal education at an accredited university prior to admission), bar associations can consider partnerships with law faculties to promote legal tech awareness and involvement during the formative stages of a person’s legal education.

Lastly, considering the overlap between the provision of legal services by legal tech companies and lawyers, bar associations in the EU may have to consider whether they should regulate unregulated legal service providers such as legal tech companies. The American Bar Association (“ABA”) has released a letter seeking comments on an Issues Paper concerning such unregulated legal service providers, asking for data and information about such legal service providers and any efforts to regulate respectively. From a European perspective, the bar associations from the respective member states of the EU should consider whether such matters concerning the regulation of the provision of legal services should be done at the EU or the national level, and whether these new legal service providers should even be regulated to begin with.

In light of this growth in legal tech in the EU, it will be interesting to see how bar associations balance the need to promote legal innovation, while protecting their members amidst this increasing competition between disruptive legal tech and traditional law firms. We can expect to see more developments and initiatives by bar associations in the EU on this area as legal tech continues to grow and intersect with traditional lawyering.