Finding Neverland: Between the Snore and the Hype in legal innovation discourse

Over the weekend I stumbled on a tweet from Kelli Proia, which read:

Kelli’s tweet struck a nerve with me, mainly because I myself have been noticing the same phenomenon more and more on Twitter over the past six months or so. Having reflected a little more on Kelli’s tweet made me realise that some of my own activity on Twitter may be read as perpetuating the “them and us” mentality where “innovation” in the legal sector is concerned and to the extent that that is the case, I regret it. 

Then I saw this tweet, from Catherine Bamford:

I take my hat off to Kelli and Catherine, because they both courageously expressed a point of view I’ve so far failed to get across in my own words (hence this article). 

“Innovation in law”, it turns out, is just as political as everything else in life, particularly on Twitter: on the Left of the emerging political spectrum we have the #bringbackboring movement and on the Right we have media outlets and companies of various shapes and sizes extolling the virtues of artificial intelligence, blockchain and things like that. 

This article is not about attacking either of these two ends of the spectrum. Instead, I’m interested in exploring whether a “centre ground” exists between the Left and the Right. 

Who am I?

Once published, I’m going to share this article on Twitter, so I’m conscious of the need to establish my background and where I’m coming from before going any further. 

  • I run research and development at the Incorporated Council of Law Reporting for England and Wales and have been working at ICLR since 2010. 

  • I’ve been working in product development and product management since ICLR launched its first online product in 2011. That product ships to customers all around the world. 

  • Before going into product development I was a law reporter. 

  • My formal training is in law, not product development. Everything I know about product development was learned on-the-job, mainly through getting things wrong and figuring out how to fix them.

  • I love examples and admire people who share their work for the benefit of others. Pretty much everything I know about the field I work in is down to people sharing their work. My professional heroes are Mike Bostock (who wrote the D3.js data visualisation framework), Ines Montani (co-founder of explosion.ai), Jake VanderPlas (data scientist) and Joel Grus (data scientist). 

  • My two main skill areas are natural language processing and graphic design. 

  • I write lots of if… else statements, but I also use machine and deep learning Python libraries to do things that might generally be said to fall in the data science bucket.

  • I have this blog and write articles like this **one, this one and this one*** from time to time

The politics and dynamics of “legal innovation”

From what I can tell, the #bringbackboring movement came to life as a reaction to a sustained torrent of hype around the use of things like blockchain and artificial intelligence in the context of legal information and practice. 

Photo by  Kevin Grieve  on  Unsplash

In it’s early incarnation, I personally identified with the #bringbackboring thing insofar as it (i) served as a useful check on hype leading to the cultivation of unrealistic expectations being placed on emerging technologies; (ii) served as a check on the hype influencing public policy in a negative way; (iii) served as a reminder that well-executed “sexy” implementations of technology almost always depend on a lot of “boring” work; and (iv) served as a reminder that we should prioritise the needs of those using our products and services when thinking about future product development and service design. 

To the extent that the early incarnation of #bringbackboring acted as a manifesto of best practice and myth-busting at the intersection of law and technology I was and remain onboard. However, over recent months the #bringbackboring narrative has, in my opinion, taken on a different edge that strikes me as becoming increasingly insular, circular and (I say this hesitantly) aggressive. 

Meanwhile, things on the Right of the spectrum (the AI/Blockchain hype factories) appear to have dialled down on doing things that traditionally caught the ire of the #bringbackboring movement. As someone who is interested in the points at which law and technology converge, I consume all sorts of online information, including articles posted by the bigger #legaltech commentators, including ArtificialLawya. Some of what I read on these sorts of outlets I find useful or thought-provoking, others not so much. In fact, this article in ArtificialLawya features two people I personally like and respect very much (one of whom works with me!)

I’m conscious that at this point it may seem like I’m giving the so-called hype factories an easy ride. But, the truth is that the very existence of the hype factories and their buzzwords have conferred considerable benefit on those working in the field of “legal innovation”. The hype factories bring the cornier end of legal innovation to the attention of decision-makers and sponsors in the markets in which we practise our craft. They encourage (maybe for the wrong reasons) companies to invest in hiring people to give life to the hype they consume and in so doing pave the way for skilled and conscientious service designers, product managers, engineers, graphic designers (the list goes on and on) to go in and to bring about real improvement (which is good for them) and get paid in the process (which is good for us). 

The Sharing Paradox

There is a strange paradox at play in the way legal innovation discourse is currently configured (and again, I’m going to sound like I’m attacking #bringbackboring). On the one hand, #bringbackboring laments the hype-laden articles and press releases pumped out by the so-called hype factories. Yet, on the other hand, #bringbackboring does very little in the way of countering that material with reasoned and open thinking of its own. 

The retort to that is likely to run along the lines of “I’m too busy actually doing to write a blog post.” Well, fine. But endless, ephemeral repetitions of the same thing on Twitter and in camera workshops do very little in the way of providing new entrants into the space with resources to learn from what you’re doing (contrast the excellent Government Digital Service blog). 

Not everyone out there can go to conferences. Not everyone out there gets invited to exclusive workshops. But most people with an interest in doing good work have a reasonably good internet connection. The more #bringbackboring puts pen to paper (or finger to key) and publishes their thinking, their approaches, their tools, their processes, their successes and their failures the greater the chance good ideas have of rising to the top. 

I made the point above of noting four people I admire professionally and the reasons I admire them is relevant here. Each of the four people I mention exhibit the following three qualities:

  1. They are extremely good at what they do

  2. They share their work

  3. They engage constructively with others

Photo by  Luís Eusébio  on  Unsplash

The centre ground

As you can hopefully tell by now, I think the centre ground of “legal innovation” is underrepresented. The centre ground, in my view, subscribes to the following principles:

  1. Experimentation with new technologies, approaches and tools should not come at the cost of relegating users to second place.

  2. User-centred design should not come at the cost of rejecting experimentation

  3. Sharing our work, with clear examples of how we did things, helps us and everyone else get better at their craft.

  4. Encourage first

  5. Ask questions in a respectful way

  6. Constructively criticise last

  7. Hold the sub-tweeting

I’d like to get better at practising these seven principles. 

Conclusion

If you’re reading this you’d be well within your rights to say something like, “if Twitter isn’t doing it for you, stop using Twitter!”. But the thing is that my work benefits immensely from the good stuff on Twitter; such as when someone points you to an article that you might be interested in, or suggests a tool that might solve your problem or asks if you want to meet up for a chat. 

Nobody really benefits from being polarising and they definitely don’t benefit from yelling into the echo chamber (conscious as I am that I may be pissing into the wind).