The Language of Legal Tech

Meaning the definition in the dictionary
The Language of Legal Tech

‘It seems like NewLaw is getting much more into cloud computing with their recent SaaS solutions, rather than the old default of on-prem solutions that BigLaw employ.’


If that made as little sense to you as how photos can always be enhanced more on TV, then read on.

The fusion of technology and law in the world of ‘Legal Tech’ brings together two domains known for their ability to string together sentences that manage to sound entirely reasonable, while at the same time completely confounding those on the other end of the conversation. The language comes from opposite ends of the spectrum – one looks back to Latin and the other reflects the modern obsession with acronyms and compounds. Combining the two was always destined to cause confusion.

This article is for the legal profession (actual or aspiring). It’s a quick run-down of some of the key tech terms used in the context of legal technology aimed to help you avoid being the one who drops ‘the Facebook’ or ‘the Google’ into conversation (note saying ‘the blockchain’ is permissible).


Agile (and Waterfall) | ADJECTIVE
‘I’m starting to think this agile project may just be waterfall with post-it notes’

In the context of project management and software development, the goal of agile (development) is to deliver better software, more simply. In contrast to the traditional ‘waterfall’ approach which focuses on a single major project with deliverables meticulously defined up front, agile is about building bite-size chunks and multiple passes (‘iterations’) to progressively get it right.

For waterfall – think of planning a dinner party months in advance, pre-ordering all the groceries and having a minute by minute run-sheet. You know, the one with prosciutto wrapped figs stuffed with blue cheese to go in the oven at 6:50pm so that service is at 7.02pm, which will be followed by a mojito at 7.08pm.

Instead, your agile dinner party might see what’s fresh at the market that day, and when you burn the prosciutto you can just speed up the mojito production.

The former approach can bring comfort in knowing how much the party is going to cost, and everyone knows what to expect. The latter though will help you deal with Susan who didn’t RSVP, but brought her vegetarian friend along who is also allergic to mint. You might just all end up on the floor when you pivot to daiquiris. What’s important is that this is a deliberate way of working, with skills, techniques and mindset to match (hint: whiteboards do not make you agile).


Algorithm | NOUN
‘I’ve developed an algorithm for perfect eggs!’
‘You mean, a recipe?’

A set of rules, that instructs you on how to perform a task. In the world of computer science, you’re giving that sequence of instructions over to a computer. Imagine teaching someone chess, and you might give them just three simple rules to choose their next move. First, eliminate all the options forbidden by the rules. Second, ignore all the options that you know would make you lose. Third, make the best permissible move you can think of. Those instructions you’ve just given your five-year old protégé? That’s an algorithm.


Back-end | NOUN | CF FRONT-END
‘So front-end is like the beautiful castle I made in my cross-stitch displayed on the wall that everyone compliments, and the back-end is the mess of stitching on the back?’
‘And without it, your beautiful castle is just a pile of thread’.

The part of programming that the end user doesn’t see. When you’re visiting someone’s website, the back-end refers to all the behind the scenes pieces, the technical bits like databases and servers. A programmer who focuses on these elements is referred to as a back-end developer, as compared with front-end developers. If you’re performing a search on a website, the front-end developer would design the visual elements of the search bar, and the back-end developer would design and maintain the database the search is performed against. Perform both those functions, and you are a full-stack developer.


Big data | NOUN
‘How much big data are we looking at – petabytes, exabytes, zettabytes or yottabytes?’

Large (really, really large) amounts of stored information. There’s no definitive size of ‘big’ but it will typically be data that is being created at high volume, velocity or variety. Because the data was not collected for the purposes that you might end up using it for, making sense of the data at scale is challenging. An example on a small scale would be if you and your colleagues fill out a timesheet every day. It’s straightforward to compare how many hours you worked last week with how many hours the new junior lawyer worked. Contrast this with trying to determine how many hours you and the junior lawyer worked last week without that timesheet (structured data) – say, by trying to analyse the times you sent emails and by looking at surveillance tapes.


Blockchain | NOUN
‘Did you mention the blockchain in the sales pitch?’

Blockchain seems to feature at every conference, no matter the industry. And if you attend post-conference drinks you’ll be sure to hear someone whisper nervously, ‘but what actually is blockchain?’. It is a record book that is very difficult to forge. It contains digital information (e.g. the date), that gets verified, about transactions. But I doubt I’ll have provided any greater insight than any other time you’ve heard an explanation, so I’ll recommend the wise words of others; check out a TED talk or start with an article like this one from David Fisher on The Artificial Lawyer. It’s always useful to start with where it may relate to your practice (hint: look up smart contracts), and from there feel free to chase the rabbit down the hole – you’ll probably end up being the one asked to do the next blockchain presentation.


Chatbot | NOUN
‘I thought I really had a connection with Janine. Turns out she was a chatbot’.

Chatbots are a form of advisor that you can interact with, which use various types of artificial intelligence to provide you with a response. These are usually either conversational in manner (the chatty likes of Siri and Alexa), or are focused on performing specific functions to assist you (think of the pop-up chat that you see on websites telling you about their opening hours). The former focus on technology that tries to predict things, and tend to utilise machine learning and natural language processing, whereas the latter variety can use natural language processing, but are often more focused on using in-built rules and logic that determine the most appropriate path.


Cloud computing | NOUN
‘Can you make sure everything is in the cloud?’

To make sense of cloud computing or ‘the cloud’, first let’s compare it with the alternative, traditional method of on-premise solutions, or ‘on-prem’. It’s all about where your software is. On-premise solutions existed before the cloud and are where the solution is physically installed in your business’ buildings. Think of those dark rooms with all the cables hanging out where the bad guys go to ‘hack into the systems’. These are server rooms. Now, instead of being in the basement of your office building, some of that is now in ‘the cloud’ – which actually just means all that stuff is now in someone else’s basement. A really big basement. Owned by cloud providers like AWS, Oracle and Google. And your computer accesses the contents of that basement via the internet, also known as going into ‘the cloud’ – see Cloud computing and Software as a Service.


Data mining and data analysis | NOUN
‘Using data mining, I found a cluster of productivity at a certain time of day. After doing some data analysis, we determined all staff should receive unlimited coffee.’

Data mining is the process of extracting and examining large amounts of information as a means to find patterns, trends, and relationships. Data analytics takes that data and tests hypotheses against it, with the aim to provide meaningful insights for the business.


Design thinking | NOUN
‘Could you put in an order for some more post-it notes? We’ve got a design thinking session coming up.’

An approach to problem-solving, that aims to make solutions more human-centred. Most commonly it employs five different phases (empathise, define, ideate, prototype, and test) to guide you through the problem-solving process. Whilst there are common ways to apply design thinking (look up the ‘double diamond’), there is no single defined methodology.


Front-end | NOUN | CF BACK-END
‘I’m thinking we jazz up the front-end of this site with giant blinking messages’.

The part of programming which means you can see something beyond those screens full of code that they’re always working on. It’s the layout, colours and font of this nicely formatted article you’re reading right now. It’s the button you might have clicked to get to read this article. Any website you visit, you are looking at the website’s front-end. There are specific types of programmers who focus on designing and developing these interfaces called front-end developers.


Machine learning | NOUN
‘My phone seems to block all my mother-in-law’s calls. Must be machine learning.’

Machine learning is a subset of artificial intelligence where computers are learning to change their behaviour based on experience, without the intervention of humans. They are mimicking learning, but humans programmed them to do that (so we’re not quite talking about sentient computers here).

An example where machine learning can be used is to assist in performing natural language processing tasks – where you are trying to get computers to understand language.

Think of a spam filter. Machine learning techniques can be utilised by having users mark emails as spam, or not spam. Each time you mark something as spam it’s added to a dataset, and we want to look for patterns as to why it was marked as spam, so that next time it is marked as spam automatically. Here, natural language processing can help improve the algorithm, as instead of simply looking for the same words in emails (which certain princes can get good at imitating), it can help understand the context of the spam email (I’m going to take you on a path that ends with you giving me money).


Natural language processing (NLP) | NOUN
‘I thought my natural language processing algorithm was working great – until my Australian uncle tried it out.’

The focus of natural language processing ‘NLP’ is to get computers to understand human language. You’ll find it popping up it many places, as it interacts with many of the other definitions in this article. The techniques used to help achieve NLP include machine learning, as well as algorithms. NLP can then be leveraged by chatbots, or to help make sense of big data. Consider a social media feed with continuous written feedback from clients. This could end up creating a big data set, and NLP can help with performing data analytics on what is being said and turn it into quantifiable, usable insights.


NewLaw | NOUN
‘How is that NewLaw firm profiting from that online advisor – I’d usually have told a client that takes me two days!?’
‘I hear they are using ‘alternative pricing structures’’.

The adoption of new processes or approaches to solving problems in the legal sphere. Often associated with law firms that have emerged in recent years which defy the traditional structure of the large law firms (‘BigLaw’), and aim to deliver their legal services differently, usually with the goal of making services more accessible. If you want to hear all this jargon in action, and maybe find a beanbag chair, head over to a NewLaw firm.


Software as a Service (SaaS) | NOUN
‘So you’re telling me this SaaS solution means no more floppy disks?’

One method of venturing into the cloud, is by using Software as a Service (‘SaaS’). SaaS refers to a particular model of delivery that gives you software, via the internet. You will usually pay a monthly subscription fee to access their services, and that fee saves you from worrying about a lot of technical stuff – see Cloud Computing. Note that it is just one mechanism (there’s also PaaS and IaaS for example – really, google it) of using the cloud in the business world.

You’re almost guaranteed to have used a SaaS solution this week, if not today. Businesses that are deemed as SaaS companies include Zoom, Netflix, Slack, Google Docs, DocuSign, Hubspot, and Office 365.


Web application or ‘Web app’ | NOUN
‘They launched that web app for COVID-19 faster than you could sign a contract with e-signature.’

A solution that is delivered and designed for, and accessed by, a web browser (Chrome, Safari, Firefox, Edge that other one, etc). Compare with a mobile app, which is delivered through a technology specific to a particular mobile device – think of something in the app store. Let’s take eBay as an example: there’s an eBay mobile app that you can install on your phone (mobile app), or you can use the eBay web page through your web browser (web app). And you could access the eBay web app, on your phone, via the browser on your phone. Clear as custard?

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