Jean Yang
21 February 2018

Forging the future of law: McCarthyFinch LegalTech Counsel Jean Yang aims to improve how the law is accessed and practised with AI

Published on 21 February 2018
When Jean Yang was tasked with the five day job of checking documents for a hearing - a repetitive, manual and time-intensive activity long the bane of junior lawyers - she would not have guessed her tech shortcut would lead to a career as LegalTech Counsel for thriving legal AI startup, McCarthyFinch.  Like so many early career lawyers, Jean expected her trajectory to go from clerkship to the steady, decade-spanning climb through MinterEllisonRuddWatts. 

Instead, she coded the task and turned a five day job into two - with more accurate results. Insights spoke to Jean about working in her ‘dream job’, what we can expect from the ‘bleeding edge’ of legaltech, and what it’s like to work with the winner of Talent Unleashed’s Global Leader - an award judged by Steve Wozniak and Richard Branson.

“I live on the intersection of the law and technology, which is a really exciting place to be,” said Jean. “I am often described as the ‘bridge’ between McCarthyFinch’s users, legal, AI and design. Beyond being in house counsel for McCarthyFinch, a large part of my role is leading product development and pushing innovation inside and outside the business. I am constantly talking to lawyers and thinking about how we can improve legal processes and reshape the business of law. I also work very closely with our engineers throughout R&D as the subject matter expert to build the AI capabilities, as well as our designers to develop intuitive user experience.”

Her journey to the forefront of AI was unorthodox. 

“It was one of those moments when I thought - surely there is a better way. As an experiment I asked a developer I knew to write code to automatically complete the repetitive parts of the tasks. I then checked every output myself and found that it picked up things I would have missed. It also turned a five day task into a two day one - improving both speed and accuracy.

“Given everything we do is by the billable hour, at first I felt guilty for improving my efficiency so drastically. However, it liberated me to assist with the submissions and consider the substantive issues in the case. 

“It also highlighted the inherent tension between the billable model and delivering, at times, better value and outcomes in the interest of our clients. This is problematic when technology is enabling both faster and better ways of doing things.”

Due to this tension, Jean was initially apprehensive about how management would respond to her initiative.

“Thankfully, the partners had the strategic foresight to view process improvements like this as a source of competitive advantage. This enabled me to successfully pitch and help launch a litigation technology working group where we worked with IT to develop more tools like this for my team. As fate would have it, this also led to me to eventually joining McCarthyFinch.”

She has four big predictions for the future of law - firms will control  their own AI systems, the billable hour model will fall out of fashion, access to justice will be improved, and ultimately, the role of lawyers will evolve for the better. 

“Technology will start touching more aspects of law and utilising legaltech will become the norm if a firm wishes to keep up. Firms will ultimately need to own their own AI strategies as a key driver of competitive advantage. Your AI should harness the specific experience and knowledge of your firm and build upon learning across all areas of law. If you don’t do this, you’ll be left managing a whole portfolio of different point solutions which your competitors will also be using. There is no differentiation.

“You will also likely see business model innovation, and finally shift from the billable model to approaches like value based pricing. Technology will not only aid efficiency and quality, it will also enable new products and services to be generated.”

Technology will also improve access to justice and, ultimately, the rule of law.

“Too often we hear how pursuing legal rights is prohibitively expensive, and how the law is too complex for the ordinary person to understand - or simply unavailable. Access to legal information, such as cases, could and should be democratised. Lowered costs and risks to provide legal advice should open the gates to serving the masses. This means more lawyers serving more people with better quality advice. 

“Being a lawyer should be a lot less stressful - and more interesting - as lawyer effort becomes focused on strategic and value add tasks, as well strengthening relationships.”

For young lawyers, Jean feels there’s never been a better time to join the profession. 

“I think it’s an amazing opportunity to be part of a profession that is seriously considering how to do things differently. As the future leaders of these firms, you have an interest and chance to influence how your firm gears up for the future. Get closer to clients and understand what they most value. Help your firm grapple with technology and discover new services that weren’t viable before. Always ask, how can your firm be doing things better?

“Understandingly there can be anxiety and uncertainty around the future of lawyers, in particular juniors. On the contrary, I wish I graduated law school a few years later in a more technological and hopefully exciting time to be a junior lawyer. What really accelerates my learning is doing meaningful work and tasks.”

Jean encourages junior lawyers to lead, rather than get left behind, by digital disruption.

“Businesses, such as legaltech startups, middleware providers, consulting services, corporates and law firms will be looking to people who can bridge the worlds of technology, law and business. There is a real opportunity for lawyers who aren’t ingrained with tradition and are adaptive to change, technologically-savvy and multi-disciplinary. Don’t let anyone put you in a box.”

Her enthusiasm about her work is irrepressible. She works alongside ex-employees of Facebook, IBM, Microsoft, Xero and the United Nations using third-wave AI techniques to augment the expertise of human lawyers, significantly reducing the cost and time to serve clients.

“What excites me the most is the opportunity to be at the core of some fundamental shifts in how law is both practiced and accessed. We’ve reached an inflection point where technology is compelling a highly traditional profession to seriously reconsider how things are done. I couldn’t be in a better position to do this than by working in a business that is setting out to innovate the entire business of law with its platform. No one else has the big vision - we are only seeing point solutions addressing a particular piece of work.

“It’s been the dream job. I work on the bleeding edge of both the technology and the law. Everyday we are working on something that has never been done before. I have learned a huge amount about technology, with 9 PhDs who are at the forefront of AI, natural language processing and machine learning. We’ve been able to tackle problems at a fraction of the time it took other businesses and developed some truly novel technologies through the coming together of diverse minds. As a start-up, I’ve been impressed with the speed at which we move, openness to new ideas and way we collaborate.”

McCarthyFinch is a joint venture of MinterEllisonRuddWatts and angel investor Goat Ventures. It is currently inviting firms who need to solve complex legal challenges for a series of case studies - free access to a team of 21 AI engineers is provided, plus potential revenue share from the resulting prototype. For further details: contact@mccarthyfinch.com.