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The Justice Gap in Legal Tech: A Tale of Two Conferences and the Implications for A2J

In the blur of activity that was last week, I attended two legal tech conferences, plus an adjacent legal technology summit. After starting the week in New York at the glitzy celebration of big law tech that is Legalweek, and ending it in Charlotte, N.C., at the Legal Services Corporation’s Innovations in Technology Conference devoted to tech for access to justice, I was both struck and troubled by the chasm between these two worlds and what it means for serving the legal needs of all.

We talk often of the justice gap in this country — of the fact that the roughly 50 million low-income Americans receive no or insufficient legal help for 92% of their civil legal problems. The justice gap extends well beyond low-income Americans. Estimates say some 60 percent of small business owners deal with legal problems without the assistance of a lawyer, and countless middle-income Americans go without legal help.

But there is another, related, kind of justice gap in this country. It is the funding gap between those who are developing legal technology to better meet the legal needs of low-income Americans and those who are developing legal tech to serve large law firms and corporate legal departments.

At Legalweek, the focus of the conference is almost exclusively on tech for large law firms and corporate legal departments. The sponsors and exhibitors are focused on products for e-discovery, contract lifecycle management, large firm financial and business management, and the like. The programs, similarly, focus on data privacy, e-discovery, information governance, contract technology, and large-scale litigation.

The exhibit hall spans three floors, the booths are big and bright, and the vendors seemingly all throw parties that are over the top, or quite literally near the top, at venues such as the Rainbow Room at the top of Rockefeller Center, with freely flowing alcohol and plenty of food.

By contrast, at the ITC conference, the attendees come mostly from the ranks of legal aid offices, pro-bono programs, court self-help staff, and the like. The programs focus on how understaffed legal aid offices and understaffed courts and understaffed community programs can use technology to help meet the influx of low-income people seeking legal help.

The exhibit hall was modest, with 10 simple tables, and there were no lavish parties put on by vendors – just a conference reception with a cash bar (and pretty good food, from what I saw).

Inequity in Legal Tech Funding

The juxtaposition of the glitziness of one conference and the modesty of the other speaks to the larger issue of inequity in legal tech – and specifically financial inequity.

The glitziness of Legalweek reflects the relative wealth of the legal tech sector that serves big law and big corporations. Bank robber Willie Sutton, when asked why he robs banks, famously answered, “Because that’s where the money is.” In the legal tech industry, money pours into tech for big firms and big corporates for the same reason – that’s where the money is.

Estimates say that some $1.4 billion was invested in legal tech in 2023 and $2.2 billion in 2022. Virtually all of that went into products designed for and marketed to the big law and corporate law sectors.

By contrast, the principal source of funding for technology development in the legal services sector is the LSC’s Technology Initiative Grants program. In 2023, the total available funding for TIG was $5 million, and most of the individual grants under the program are less than $40,000.

Think about it: The total TIG funding is roughly the amount of a seed round for a single startup focused on big law tech

Legal Tech for the 1%

Access to justice is a problem that extends beyond those who are low-income. As already noted, many small businesses are unable to afford legal help when they need it. Middle-income households often tackle legal issues on their own, unable to afford a lawyer. Although I haven’t been able to put my finger on stats that would back this up, it seems likely that hundreds of millions of people in the United States – not just those who are low income – face a lack of access to justice.

Meanwhile, those big law firms and big corporate legal departments are helping, what, maybe the top 1% or 2% of the population? Let’s be generous and call it the top 10% of the population.

However you figure it, the conclusion is unavoidable that the vast majority of funding in legal tech is going to products that serve the legal needs of only a small minority, while tech devoted to serving the vast majority of legal needs receives only a miniscule portion of that money.

Granted, the argument can be made that some of this money poured into big law tech trickles down to A2J tech. Generative AI developed and refined for big law, for example, may someday lead to products used to better serve low-income individuals.

It also cannot be ignored that an increasing number of well-financed legal tech companies are developing programs by which they make their tech available to lawyers and legal professionals in the A2J sector. In fact, Relativity, probably the largest e-discovery company in the world, was on site at the ITC conference talking about its Justice for Change program, through which it provides its tech to programs tackling social and racial justice.

But imagine if just a fraction of the billions being spent on big law tech could somehow be diverted to A2J tech? Imagine the impact it could have on narrowing the justice gap in this country?

Willie Sutton might say, “Sorry, that’s not where the money is.” But, in fact, legal tech companies are making money serving the A2J and pro bono sectors. Consider the companies that are part of the Justice Technology Association, all for-profit companies devoted to, as the JTA’s website says, “increasing access to justice for real people in their daily lives.”

An Industry Divided

There is a tendency to think of the legal tech industry as a monolith. But in traveling last week from relative opulence of Legalweek to the seeming modestly of ITC, it did not feel that way. Rather, it felt like an industry divided between the haves and have-nots.

Let me be very clear that I do not mean in any way to minimize the amazing work being done by technologists in the legal aid sector. The ITC’s agenda was replete with examples of how legal services programs are developing creative and cutting-edge approaches to addressing the justice gap. Several law school programs are also providing valuable support for these efforts.

But when balanced against the enormity of the access to justice problem in this country, these efforts will never be enough. The legal tech industry needs all hands on deck to fight the justice gap. What does that mean?

VCs, private equity, and other funding sources should intentionally allocate money to A2J tech.
Big legal tech companies should set up programs to donate their tech to A2J programs.
Big legal companies also should put resources towards developing or adapting tech to serve A2J programs and providers.
More law schools should emulate schools such as Arizona, Duke, Stanford, Suffolk and others to create programs that study A2J tech.
More people working in legal tech should come to conferences such as ITC to broaden their perspectives on where tech is needed and how it can be applied.
Big law innovation staff should reach out and partner with local legal aid agencies and other community groups to jointly develop A2J tech.

The justice gap in legal technology is a reflection of the justice gap more generally, and both reflect a capitalist society in which the balance of wealth and resources is wildly out of whack. But more can be done. If the legal tech sector reflected at Legalweek contributed more to the sector reflected at ITC, perhaps that imbalance could be offset, at least slightly, and the justice gap narrowed, even just a bit.

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