Is MENA ready for the digital lawyer?

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MENA ready for digital legal tools?
Even a human lawyer has more feelings than a robot. (Image via Manslife.com)

The $400 billion dollar US legal market is beginning to see some disruption.

With the advent of tools like Ross Intelligence or Blackstone Discovery, many tasks traditionally accomplished by paying a lawyer are being automated by low-cost, digital-facing alternatives, potentially changing the legal landscape.  

Meanwhile, MENA lawyers and entrepreneurs are left questioning if and how these changes will come to affect the region.

So what exactly are these tech alternatives providing?

Well, a range of legal and quasi-legal services. These include choosing a lawyer, incorporating your startup, drafting contracts, helping register a trademark or copyright, assisting in the discovery phase of litigation, researching digitized caselaw and legal questions, and more.  

These digital tools avoid the overhead costs associated with hiring a law firm as well as the billable hourly rates associated with hiring a state-licensed lawyer.

Wamda spoke to some lawyers and entrepreneurs from the region to get their thoughts on three examples of automatable legal needs which apply broadly to MENA entrepreneurs.

Choosing a lawyer

The most important legal decision you make may be which lawyer to hire - a process that traditionally happens through referrals from friends or lawyers in other practices.

Many new services like Priori Legal or Avvo offer a digital marketplace of lawyers, either by directly connecting you with a lawyer in their network, or by aggregating information on lawyers, their rates, specialties, jurisdictions of practice, and reviews, at the click of a button. [Note: even if not all these services currently provide MENA-based lawyers, many offer lawyers with dual qualifications or as intermediaries with local MENA counsel].

The lawyers we asked were mostly skeptical of the concept, particularly as it relates to services that just present you with aggregated data on lawyers meeting your criteria.  

Rita Khoriaty, a Lebanon-based lawyer, says you need a lawyer you can trust, and online reviews are not a good enough tool to make that decision - rather, you should rely on referrals from friends or trusted lawyers practicing in other field.  

Similarly, Lana Alamat, partner and general counsel at Wamda Capital in Amman, said “the lawyer who does your will cannot do your venture work, and MENA lawyers may dabble in this relatively new field without necessarily being entirely competent in it; a review or listed specialty may speak to one practice strength but not another.”  

Alamat also thought this kind of service could work both ways in the lawyer-client relationship. “In the highly fractured region, finding competent local co-counsel in any given jurisdiction is not always an easy job,” she said. “These tools could come to serve as an important function for lawyers developing their MENA network.”

Incorporating your company

Incorporating your startup is a process with at least three steps:  researching the options, drafting incorporation documents, and filing with the relevant agency.

Startupr, available in the UAE, gives you a quick read on your jurisdiction, provides you a single form, and files on your behalf.  Other UAE-dedicated services, like Company Formation Dubai, offer a similar solution, along with a free initial evaluation/phone consultation.

We can break it down:

1. Researching your options. This will always be more effective with a human than a computer, particularly given the fractured nature of MENA and nuance of business-legal considerations.

2. Drafting your documents. Apparently it can take a lawyer 6 to 7 hours for a ‘standard’ incorporation with no specific requirements - like specific powers for the chairman or customized by-laws. Khoriaty said that in these standard cases, automated tools may be effective in helping draft the necessary documents.

3. Filing your papers presents the biggest challenge to these services in MENA, for two reasons -

First, some MENA jurisdictions like Jordan or Lebanon have rules around having a lawyer on retainer, or founding shareholders being present for the signing of certain documents, respectively - making purely online incorporation harder or outright impossible.

Second, even in jurisdictions without such rules, Alamat is very skeptical of the concept behind these tools because of this filing component - MENA bureaucracies are fickle and difficult, and you need a human touch.  A compromise:  ask your lawyer if she has a Public Relations Officers who might do the filing at a non-lawyer rate.

Drafting contracts

You need to have a lawyer draft the many contracts needed by your startup.

But why not have a service like LegalZoom or Rocket Lawyer do it for you?

One strategy is to draft contracts using online tools, then bring them to your lawyer for double-checking - avoiding the billable hours of having an attorney initially draft these forms.

According to the lawyers Wamda spoke to, this strategy and these tools may indeed be effective for some of your contractual needs.  

They agreed that contracts that could be good candidates for these tools include employment agreements, especially with junior employees.  

Also Alamat suggested agency agreements (for example, to comply with MENA national ownership requirements) as potential candidates; and Khoriaty suggested ordinary rent agreements and non-complex undertakings or waivers.

On the other hand, a computer will probably not nail your Intellectual Property licensing needs or shareholders agreement.

So, ready or not?

Take it on a case by case basis, and still consult with a lawyer.

For example don’t just look at ‘contracts’ but ‘employment contracts’ versus ‘shareholder agreements’. Check with a lawyer whether a particular component might be automated using one of these tools.  

As these services continue to develop, there are many others providing more particular needs which may be helpful for the region’s entrepreneurs. 

A good lawyer will be honest about telling you what services are safer to outsource (safer being operative - no such decision comes without risk). So, get creative in asking your lawyer how you might leverage them.

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