The pandemic-spurred transition to remote work hasn’t just accelerated legal tech adoption in the U.S. Across the world in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, it’s also sparked burgeoning demand for Arabic-based legal tech tools, creating a legal tech market bolstered by a strong entrepreneurial spirit.
Over the past four months, for instance, recruiters from the legal tech branch of consultancy firm Jameson Legal saw a sharp spike in the number of legal tech startups from GCC countries reaching out to access their hiring services.
“At the beginning, most approaches for our services were coming out of legal tech companies in North America and Europe,” said Jon Bartman, the London-based head of Jameson Legal Tech. “Now, we get approached nearly two or three times a week from new startups with innovative products and a vision, anywhere from Saudi Arabia to Bahrain to Kuwait to the UAE, all reaching out for our services.”
Bartman added that while clients from North America have maintained their numbers, the innovation coming from GCC countries signals a shift in the global legal tech market, creating an environment for more of a bilingual approach to legal tech and automation. Such an approach might give companies an advantage in parts of the world that are predominantly Arabic-speaking.
“A lot of Western technologies cater to a mostly English-speaking audience,” said Jameson Legal’s consultant operations executive, Bernie Sugano. “Something unique coming from the technologies in the Middle East—specifically the UAE and Saudi Arabia, the biggest players—is that we will have technologies which will cater to the Arab world, which be able to read Arab contracts and be compatible with the workflow here.”
Sugano, based in Dubai, has seen the evolution of legal technology from the ground up, and she believes the coming months will only continue the upswing in this tech-savvy part of the world.
Still, in a region of the world that embraces technological innovation—for instance, parking tickets are paid and police reports are filed via smartphones in the UAE—why has legal tech evolution lagged behind not only the Western world but other sectors booming within the Gulf states, like fintech?
Entrepreneurs and attorneys in the region blame an older generation, the bureaucracy of the legal profession, and lawyers’ fears of losing billable hours due to automation.
The founder of a case management software company based in the UAE called CaseEngine, Abdul Hakim Manattil said his company targets the “newer generation,” owing to a rather stubborn legal landscape among veteran attorneys. He believes the resistance to legal tech tools and automation is shortsighted, because while lawyers he speaks to fear being “replaced by robots,” they don’t see how many more cases they could tackle in the time they save automating and streamlining manual tasks.
“Through the CaseEngine solution, we have managed to digitize only 5% of UAE law firms,” Manattil said. “There is a huge chance to scale up, but our product is for the future generation, not the traditional lawyers.”
He likens the current legal tech situation to the fintech explosion that emerged in 2017, and within a few years, took hold of the Gulf region to create a hotbed of innovation and competition.
“Those who are born in 1980 still want to go to the store to enjoy shopping, but the new generation is on the apps, they save time with convenience, they can change easily,” Manattil pointed out. “That is how legal tech will be here. We entrepreneurs have to be patient because the new generation of lawyers will use this technology at fast rates.”
The legal tech market in the GCC countries, which was still nascent over the past decade, undoubtedly was propelled by the pandemic that pushed many who feared using technology to so do out of necessity.
“Since the pandemic hit, those who were not willing to change were forced to, not by willingness but by the need to survive and get on with it,” Sugano said. “But now that it’s happened, we have people thinking, ‘Where else can we apply this?’ That’s what’s going to create the legal tech boom here.”
It can only help that the UAE and Saudi governments are both firmly backing the evolution by aiding investment in technology startups. The UAE’s Artificial Intelligence office launched “The National Program for Coders” in 2021 to recruit international talent by incentivizing them with long-term “golden” visas, while they contribute to digital startups in the region.
Additionally, sovereign wealth fund from the country also invested $100 million in Israel’s technology sector, hoping to boost Israeli venture capital expansion into Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia pledged $6.4 billion earlier this month in future tech startups, as the Kingdom attempts a shift away from oil.
What’s more on Feb 2, the UAE enacted a new private-sector labor law, the “Federal Decree Law No. 33,” which expands benefits like additional maternity and paternity leave benefits, more flexible schedules, and allows salaries to be paid in currencies of the employee’s choosing, among other amendments. Sugano sees this as an attempt to recruit and nurture talent within not just the legal tech sector, but in the technology sector as well.
How much such efforts further boost the legal tech sector in gulf states, however, remains to be seen. But it’s likely that governments will stay active in supporting this market.
“You know, the governments in that region have always wanted to be No. 1 in everything that they do, in the 21st century that is technology,” Bartman said. “It’s no surprise that we are watching the legal tech boom in those countries now.”