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Does 'Hype' help legal practitioners select the right legal technology for their problems?

James Ainsworth

The latest iteration of Gartner's 'Legal tech and compliance products for 2021' Hype Cycle has been spotted in the wild by Artificial Lawyer. The annual refresh has generated much discussion amongst tech-minded legal types scrambling for what it means as much as legal-minded tech types.

For the uninitiated, the Gartner Hype Cycle is essentially a graphic, a representation of technologies over time. It comes in many flavours and seeks to plot tech maturity on the rollercoaster of emerging use, through to abandonment or, for the victorious, mass user adoption.


Image Source: Report author – Zack Hutto

A little hype history

The first Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies was published in 1995. At the 'Peak of Inflated Expectations', we saw 'Intelligent agents' riding the wave – these would be more likely referred to as Chatbots today. Undoubtedly Chatbots are part of mainstream customer service culture, less so for legal use cases. Overall, the technology still has some way to go in just how much utility and intelligence Chatbots possess. Curiously, after the 18-months we have all just experienced, it's hard to argue that 'Video conferencing' shouldn't find itself back in the 'Trough of Disillusionment' where it resided in 1995 – not for reasons of poor user adoption, just through sheer fatigue. Thankfully, 'Knowledge-based Systems' found sanctuary and widespread usage in the 'Plateau of Productivity and hasn't looked back since.

What does this year's hype mean? 

Knowing how to resolve business problems with technology can be tricky. A lot of thought goes into legal technology solutions and vendor selection. We caught up with iManage Legal Practice Lead, Jack Shepherd to bring much-needed clarity and pragmatism to 'Gartner's legal tech and compliance products for 2021 Hype Cycle' graphic. What does it mean to an industry, this here legal tech vendor and for those end-users who come to choose and use the technologies? 

What one thing stands out in this updated Gartner Hype cycle?

The spread is still very much in the 'Peak of inflated expectations'. This is hardly surprising. There is still a vast gulf between the promise of technology and the actual usage it gets by lawyers in the wild. It is encouraging to see more and more vendors move beyond technology and focus on things like adoption and change management.


What do you feel about the shifts from 2020 to this 2021 update?

Robotic Process Automation appears to have been removed. I welcome this. It perhaps indicates a preference for fixing underlying processes rather than putting a sticking plaster over bad processes. There is certainly a trend towards focusing on people and processes rather than simply technology among many law firms and legal teams.

As the Artificial Lawyer article observes, it's odd that Alternative Legal Service Providers (ALSPs) are even included here. Their movement towards the trough of disillusionment seems consistent with the recent Susskind article on it being "harder than expected" to reduce legal work to lawyer-free process.


Is it reflective of what you see "on the ground" – any surprises or omissions?

I am surprised to see "Data and Analytics Governance" in the trough of disillusionment.  I find this odd because good data hygiene is usually a precursor to leveraging machine learning algorithms.

References to AI can mean different things to different people, so perhaps a definition of what we mean by AI would be helpful. I would always want to use a definition of AI more akin to machine learning, i.e. computers learning from examples rather than producing seemingly magic results (which can occur without any machine learning at all through well-designed rules-based systems)


A diagram should bring clarity to those that consume its information, any wrinkles in the lay of the land?

The Hype Cycle is indeed confusing in some parts, as in some places it mixes problems and solutions. We have plenty of solutions (Blockchain, Legal Chatbots) but a few things bordering on problems as well (Data Breach Response, Subject Rights Requests). It would be helpful to have a more problem-focused analysis, in my opinion.

It's odd how Blockchain finds itself simultaneously in Innovation Trigger (Blockchain for Data Security) and Trough of Disillusionment (Blockchain and Smart Contracts). These are, arguably, the same technology just for different use cases.


Does the Gartner Hype Cycle help or hinder law firms seeking to invest in legal tech?

The hype cycle provides valuable visibility into the kinds of things occupying the minds of innovators in law firms and legal teams. My only wish is that it focus more on the problems being tackled by these people, rather than the means used to implement them. We should be honest about the challenges we face as an industry in achieving change and getting new processes and technologies used. I believe that a good way to progress that goal is to be clear on “what” is delivered rather than “how” it is delivered.

For further industry analysis, we recommend a read of Artificial Lawyer's take. To immerse yourself in the methodology, analysis, and implications that underpin the consumer-facing Hype graphic, read the work of Gartner analysts Zack Hutto and Chris Audet, in their full research report, as a fully-paid up member of Gartner and their services.


About the author

James Ainsworth