Richard Tromans: Semantics in Legal Technology
Jack - 16/04/2018
Richard Tromans

RICHARD TROMANSRichard Tromans is the founder of Tromans Consulting, which advises on legal innovation. He is also the founder of Artificial Lawyer, a news website covering AI and automation in the legal field. In this guest blog post for Legal Geek, he analyses the semantics involved in legal technology.

Language is always evolving. Grammar changes slowly, but because humans keep inventing new things and our culture keeps moving forward, new vocabulary pops into existence on an almost weekly basis.

Some of it stays with us, such as the word ‘technology’, which was first coined in the 17th century as a fairly niche term back then, but is now ubiquitous, because…well, there are a lot of new things created everyday now.

In other cases we have competing terms and some go out of fashion. For example, who uses the term ‘artificer’ any longer, which means an inventor or engineer? While other terms, such as ‘geek’, which comes from the late 19th Century and meant ‘fool’ now takes on a whole new meaning in the present day and means an obsessive expert.

A case in point that illustrates this fluidity is the debate about the world of legal technology and the language that has evolved to describe it. Which leads us to the central issue: how do we label this movement, this change in the technology of the legal sector?

Legal Geek has picked four possible terms to be the best way of describing our ‘thing’: “LawTech”, “LegalTech”, “Legal IT” and “TechLaw”.  Here’s my contribution to the debate:

LegalTech

For me this is the right term to describe the activities of this sector. Why? If we look at other sectors, we talk about ‘RegTech’, ‘InsurTech’, ‘PropTech’ and ‘FinTech’.

In each case the first part of the term modifies the word ‘tech’. Here, ‘regulation’, ‘insurance’, ‘property’ and ‘finance’ refer to the type of work done, i.e. the sector, or industry.

In which case, we should use the term ‘legal’ here, as we talk about the ‘legal industry’, ‘legal market’, ‘legal sector’ also.

I.e. we are talking about technology that is made use of by a sector of the economy. Hence, LegalTech.

LawTech

This has always seemed like the wrong term to describe the sector. Law refers to the practise of law, i.e. the subject ‘The Law’, which we study at college, or which we talk about in social terms, i.e. ‘That is what you must do, it’s the law.’ Most people don’t say the ‘law industry’, or ‘the law sector’.

LawTech would only make sense if it referred to technology that was specific to a sub-group of legal tasks that related directly to ‘The Law’ itself, e.g. tech that focused on drafting laws, or perhaps helped students to understand legal issues.

But, ‘law’ is the wrong term to describe an industry sector, at least if we keep up the same linguistic style of other sectors. For example, we don’t call fintech, ‘moneytech’ or ‘transactiontech’, we describe it by the industry as a whole. Hence, LawTech doesn’t work as an umbrella term.

LegalIT

This is a tricky one, as its main challenge is really over whether to replace the word ‘technology’ with the acronym for ‘information technology’. It gets the ‘legal’ part right.

But, these days using the term IT tends to date you as having a focus on computing from the 1990s. In short, it’s accurate, but old, at least in today’s fast-moving world.

Because of its close link to the first wave of legal technology I’d prefer not to use it, as it seems dated now and doesn’t capture what I call ‘the New Wave of legal technology’. Because it uses the term ‘legal’ it’s still better than LawTech. But, basically, it’s old fashioned, so let’s drop that one.

TechLaw

This is an easy one to dismiss. In this phrase, tech modifies the word law, in which case it clearly is about the practice area of technology law, e.g. lawyers who advise on data, or technology patents. This is not about the area of legal technology.

One could be a TechLaw specialist and have no interest in legal technology – and that often happens. So, we can remove this one.

Conclusion

Although language is always evolving, words have to mean something specific otherwise communication breaks down. For me, LegalTech is the best way to describe what we are all involved in now. It also helps with areas such as ‘legal AI’, i.e. AI tech that is adapted to the legal world, and we can use ‘legal blockchain’, in the same way.

Personally, it also sounds better. Try saying ‘law AI’, for example, rather than ‘legal AI’, the latter just has a better ring to it.

But, that’s just my view. If the world decided that the word ‘blue’ actually meant the colour red, then we’d all have to go with that, as the father of semiology, Roland Barthes, would have pointed out. However, while we still have a choice, I’d have to go with LegalTech.

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