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Wakili-AI: An Interview with Mwago Gatahi

Wakili-AI: An Interview with Mwago Gatahi

Tell us a little bit about your organisation/company/product and why you set it up.

Wakili-AI is a brand covering legal innovation and access to justice. It means ‘Lawyer-AI’ in Swahili. I set it up to collate my interests in SheriaSoft and Nomeon Apps, both legal tech projects as well as my penchants in media monitoring, market data, cyber-awareness and general productivity.

I started experimenting with legal technology simply to stay productive. I had worked at a law firm where a bulk of the work was repetitive, but no useful automation existed. As a result, I would be burnt out most of the time. I sought to change that.

On the one hand, you have SheriaSoft’s legal practice management system which handles the locking and tackling of running a law firm through the cloud including Client Relationship Management, Matter/Case Management, Billing, Reporting and HR, and on the other, you have Nomeon Apps which is a personal collection of desktop applications that aid in my legal delivery process. It encompasses an AI Professional Support Lawyer for my legal queries, a news curator with an added ability to detect objectivity and flag unreliable (fake) news, a stock market monitor (because I’m into stocks) and a simple to-do list app to manage my tasks.

I created these tools to autonomously handle my day to day administration leaving me with more time to think about the substantive areas of the law, which in my case is legal research. I’m now sharing them with the world.

What has been your greatest success/are you most proud of so far?

My success is in helping accelerate the advent of legal technology and useful automation. Africa’s legal industry is ripe for innovation and I’m just proud to be a part of it.

What is the greatest challenge you have faced?

Rejection. I’ve had the door shut on me more times than I can remember, and now I’ve gotten used to it.

What are the top challenges facing African lawyers today, in terms of data and technology?

Luddism comes to mind. The legal industry is centered on process. People don’t like to talk about it, but that’s how lawyers make money. Automate the process and you’ll be met with heavy resistance. A good example is with digitization of the Kenya’s companies registry. Lawyers used to make tidy sums out of incorporating a company, but once eCitizen came in, and at a fraction of the cost, many of them felt short changed. Another one is with the lands registry. For a while lawyers have been profiting from a slow and mundane process. But all that will be digitized soon.

As an industry, there is a general lack of knowledge on matters data privacy and security. We understand cyber laws, but we do very little as an industry to safeguard ourselves against cyber threats. Lawyers handle extremely sensitive data and when a cyber breach occurs, it can spell a lot of trouble and stress. You will recall DLA Piper’s cyber attack that left its lawyers stranded.

Technology competence is also a challenge. It’s very rare to find an African lawyer with a technology background and vice-versa. However there is a growing number of young lawyers now enrolling for coding classes and some like myself who are self-taught. When I started practice, I thought that the basic computer skills I developed after high school was sufficient, but now practice delivery now is much more than just Microsoft word and Email.

How do you think lawyers can make use of legal tech to address those challenges?

Like any other industry, technology is just an enabler. It is not, and should not be the main thing that drives a business. People drive businesses. Also, I don’t think there’s a cure to ignorance, however I do see even the hardcore luddite appreciating the benefits of automating a certain task in his day to day to save a couple of hours, and then channeling those hours into something more substantive. And speaking of hours, the bread and butter of a lawyer is in time. Legal-tech should aim at turning time saved into legal fees. Spending a bulk of your time on routine tasks and administrative isn’t helpful to anyone.

Law firm partners should also be open to investing in technology that safeguards their data. Cyber security and awareness is all about preparation. That’s what the $150 billion industry is about- preparation because it’s not a matter of if it can happen, but when it will happen. Facebook was hacked, NASA was hacked, DLA Piper hacked, we hear of banks suffering cyber breaches all the time. A law firm is no exception. So managing partners need to take data security very seriously.

Whichever category of legal-tech you choose to invest in depends on your motivations. Some law firms are now investing in their own in-house tech-hubs to develop systems specific to their practice while others are content in buying licenses from providers. Whatever the case, the solution should aim at solving a clear problem, with little to no human input and learning curves.

On technology competence, lawyers at every level should undertake a tech-related course to prepare them for the digital work place. Some countries have made it mandatory. In the African context, Law Societies are yet to embrace tech-trainings as part of the CLE. And I don’t mean sessions where cyber/tech laws are regurgitated for the umpteenth time, I mean hands-on approach sessions where lawyers learn to code and how to run their businesses safely in the cloud.

Still on practice improvement, front-end law firm operations are now handled by automated agents such as chat bots. With SheriaSoft for example, we took the whole front-end process and automated it. We sensed reluctance after claims were made that we would make certain positions redundant, so we now position it as a law firm productivity tool where the same people who risked losing their jobs through automation, are the same ones using these solutions for their day to day, and giving us helpful feedback.

What are the top challenges facing African companies/institutions/governments today, in terms of data and technology?

Local technology apathy: There have been a few technology unicorns from Africa, but that number should be bigger. Apathy for local technology is not unusual. An African institution would rather buy a technology licence from another country, built by someone they have never met and entrusting them with their (often) sensitive data.

Corruption & mistrust in Government: The playing field is never level for a start-up looking to work with government. Business opportunities are usually skewed in favor of people with well known contacts. Except for a few examples, corruption remains a challenge among government and large corporates.

IP theft: Still on corruption, another challenge is in stealing IP. Over the past year, there have been events masked as tech-fairs/events where innovators showcase their prototypes/projects and ideas only for a big corporate or a government agency to launch a similar product a few months later to the dismay of the originator.

What legal tech innovation do you think will be most widely adopted in Africa in the next decade?

I predict AI in Legal Research, Document Automation, Practice Management and Evidence Management will be most widely adopted.

I am not particularly confident with block chain at the moment because the learning curve is still too steep.

What regulatory and legislative environment is required to facilitate greater use of legal tech on the continent? 

Africa’s legal industry needs to appreciate that innovation and transformation starts at the individual level ability and mindset. As players, we need to invest in the education and training for the lawyers of the future. We need to rethink legal education and redesign it to tackle the industry’s apparent tech skills gap.

Singapore recognized this and recently adjudicated for legal innovation to be part of a lawyer’s development. Singapore realized the lack of collaboration between the industry’s stake holders including its Ministry of Law, its Law Society and its law schools and came up with a 3 pronged vision for legal tech and transformation:

  1. Fostering global perspective; 
  2. Adaptation of technology to advance and democratize legal service delivery; and 
  3. Human centered capability building through education and training. 

I believe all African states have this sort of structure, but our willingness to collaborate is worse than Singapore’s. 

And yes, we are capable of formulating plans towards a similar vision. We can channel resources, establish PPPs, set up vehicles for transformation and have a clear strategic vision however, the true test will be in our ability to execute against those plans. That’s what sets countries like Singapore and others apart – the zeal to execute.

If you could change one thing to facilitate the growth of legal tech in Africa, what would that be? 

Regulation. I would make technology competence a requirement towards a lawyer’s development. And while regulating, we should not close the door to even more competent players such as computer and data scientists. The regulation should center around the exchange of knowledge between ICT professionals and lawyers for legal-tech to truly grow.

Who or what is your greatest inspiration?

I am inspired by Elon Musk – the founder of electric vehicle company Tesla and rocket manufacturer and launcher, SpaceX. He’s helping save the environment, while at the same time building, launching and landing rockets. Now that’s a CV…

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