2017 was a landmark year for technology in the legal sector. We have seen several groundbreaking innovations make the move from theory to reality, such as the first smart contract running on the Ethereum blockchain and the first entirely blockchain-based commercial property transaction; further proliferation of applied AI solutions for due diligence and e-discovery; and even more legal technology startups than were registered in 2016 (itself a bumper year). We have also seen the darker side of technology in the sector, with global scale cyberattacks affecting some of the world’s largest law firms.
This is definitely beyond “business as usual” territory. Many law firms and in-house legal teams (large and small) have been making positive strides not only to keep up with the latest technology, but also to be a part of its development. Here are just a few of the trends we have been seeing during 2017.
Agile working – here to stay (this time?)
Law firms have been exploring methods of agile working since at least the 1990s, but the 2017 landscape is a very different one to 20 or 30 years ago. “Agile working” for a law firm no longer means giving staff laptops and asking them to hotdesk. Empowered by better infrastructure and remote working technology, it is evolving to be as efficient as – if not more so in some cases than – a traditional desk based equivalent. Sustainable agile working strategies are also being driven by firms seeking savings on property costs, and an increase in the value that tech-savvy employees place on working flexibility and cutting commute times.
We have seen a considerable increase in both the range and quality of cloud-based services to enable the “agile lawyer” this year. Browser and mobile-based apps for time recording, meeting schedules, project trackers and “to do” lists, and even entire practice management systems, are now available at competitive prices on a pay-as-you-use basis. What is perhaps more important is that many of these cloud solutions integrate seamlessly with their “client-side” equivalents – for example, a remote worker using Office 365 to create documents can file their work to a server-based document management system like iManage just as easily as an office-based colleague can. Improvements in the capacity, reliability, security and pricing of cloud solutions have empowered a boom in remote working technologies, making working from home (or another location outside the office) easier than it was even two years ago.
Alternative roles – bringing in new skills
The profession has been hearing about possible new roles bridging the gap between the law and use of technology from the likes of Richard Susskind for over 30 years. It’s not that we wouldn’t have liked to have legal project managers, legal knowledge engineers and legal technologists on hand to add value to our services; it’s just that law firm models and client demand have not generally supported the investment and cultural change required.
This is now changing due to factors like growth of in-house and legal ops teams, shrinking legal budgets, competition from alternative legal providers and the recent boom in innovative legal technologies. The volume and sophistication of new legal tech offerings and client demands are now reaching a point where larger commercial firms in particular can justify the introduction of full time, permanent supporting roles such as legal technologists. Scotland has a fantastic pool of talent and core skills in these types of disciplines and the legal sector will increasingly fight for its share.
We are seeing innovation move from being one line on the annual IT budget to an intrinsic part of the service offering. Clients are adopting technology themselves to introduce efficiencies and improve outputs, and are expecting the same from their lawyers (increasingly manifesting in tender documentation, for example). This will continue to drive the development of alternative roles in the legal profession.
Blockchain – ignore it at your peril
If you haven’t heard of blockchain (or distributed ledger technology, DLT (Blockchain article on Wikipedia; Journal, May 2017, 22), you may now be in a minority. Whatever your views on blockchain and associated projects such as cryptocurrencies or smart contracts, it must surely be acknowledged that 2017 was the year lawyers really started to take notice of the underlying technology.
Our own dedicated legal technologist has spoken more on blockchain at internal training and external conferences than any other topic this year. This isn’t to say that the legal services sector is diving headfirst into blockchain for our own use cases (we believe that will become a theme as we head towards 2020), but it has been a big year of awareness raising, upskilling and getting to grips with this important technology.
Commercial lawyers in particular should understand that their clients are now engaging with blockchain in innovative ways (see, for example, “Fizzy”, the smart contract travel insurance product from AXA which pays out automatically on flight delays), and there is a real demand for a legal perspective across all sectors. Blockchain is likely to revolutionise how entire business models operate, and lawyers will have an essential role to play in deploying the critical thinking necessary to ensure safe application and governance around the practical application of blockchain technology. It is important that the legal sector engages with blockchain now, so that we stand ready to support our clients. We are already taking some important, if tentative, steps forward there.
Conclusion – where next?
You may have spotted the recent PWC report entitled Time for Change, which highlighted that an increasing number of firms are viewing technology not just as a means to boost efficiency, but also as a way to reimagine how legal services are delivered. 2017 featured some excellent examples of that (including, may I modestly note, in my own firm), but they are not yet widespread. It’s fair to say that larger law firms are further ahead, though there are some striking case studies emerging in smaller firms and in-house teams too.
Technology plays an increasingly important role in how we as a profession deliver a high-quality service to our clients. In years past, what “technology” meant to a law firm might have been largely answered by which version of Office they were using, or how sophisticated their vid-con options were. Today it’s so much more than this: technology substantially affects both the quality of what we deliver and the effectiveness and efficiency with which we deliver it. Increasingly it’s something which can set apart the progressive, forward-thinking firms and legal teams from the pack.
If we engage positively with legal tech innovators, take care to separate the hype from the reality, and take measured risks on new ideas, then we can do so much more for our clients than produce the same work in a different format. We have an opportunity to shape how technology changes the entire dynamic of the lawyer-client relationship, whether this is through agile working practices, “smart” contracts and agreements, blockchain-enabled transactions, technology driven dispute resolution and diligence techniques or otherwise. This article contains just a small snapshot of what is happening at an exciting time for the profession.
This year for many has been about getting to grips with the basics of new and innovative technologies. We anticipate that next year will be about getting the profession more actively involved, and becoming proactive rather than reactive participants in how legal services are delivered now and in the years to come. This is not just for the larger firms either: technology can be a great equaliser and differentiator for smaller firms and legal firms too.
What the suppliers say
The Journal asked some leading IT providers to the profession for their perspective on current trends and which firms stand to be most affected.
What are the latest technological advancements and what do they mean for working practices, service delivery and client expectations?
“The fourth industrial revolution is bringing mobile supercomputing, intelligent robots and even self-driving cars.
“The legal profession globally is experiencing greater pressure than ever, from clients looking to access information from wherever they are, whenever suits them.
“We are fast approaching the age of a true ‘client experience revolution’, and smarter communications tools are beginning to deliver enhanced capabilities.
“As a leading innovator in Scotland, LawWare continues to invest heavily in R&D, ensuring our clients can meet the challenges of these fast-changing times.”
Warren Wander, managing director, LawWare Ltd
“Technology has moved significantly over the last five years, with many firms opting for cloud-based solutions which allow solicitors to have information more readily at their fingertips. This could be by the use of their practice management system on their laptops at meetings or by accessing information from their mobile phones when on the move. All of this allows solicitors to be constantly on top of their cases, meaning that response times come down and efficiency on management of cases increases.”
Brian Welsh, Insight Legal Software Ltd
“Law firms are getting smart with technology and, in the past five years, firms have realised the need to be always available for clients. LEAP, the largest UK cloud provider to small law firms, with around 1,400 UK firms using the cloud, uses Amazon Web Services to store data as the cloud is more secure than a firm’s own on-site server, and also offers remote access for laptops, tablets and smartphones.”
Peter Baverstock, CEO of LEAP
“Digital and cloud-based technologies are making a positive difference to working practices and services delivery, driving efficiencies and security. For example, our recently launched cloud-based Case Collaboration tool allows solicitors and barristers to work together in a digital environment 24/7.
“Artificial intelligence (AI) is another trend disrupting the industry. We’ve already seen clients use AI to gain a competitive advantage and expect to see more of this type of AI deployment in the future.”
Doug Hargrove, managing director of Legal at Advanced
Firms are said to be using technology as a way to “re-imagine how legal services are delivered” – does this just apply to global firms or should everyone be paying attention?
"Access to more developed expert systems means many lawyers will become more generalist and more focused on managing the client relationship and interpreting the advice.
"New public services such as ScotLIS will mean that some consumers will be better informed, and lawyers will need to become better at handling different levels of informed clients.
"It is noticeable that more and more lawyers have Apple products. They expect to use tablets at home, smartphones on the move and they want access to all of their data. Wearable tech has been a bit faddy, but second generation devices will be much better at supporting users’ real demands.
"Tech such as voice support, phone integration, etc hasn’t gone away – suppliers offering a greater range of user support will slowly gain traction.
"Collaborative working is where the smart folks are: working with clients is the desired objective. There is a technology challenge here in order to balance accessibility with confidentiality, but where there’s a will there’s a way."
Simon Greig, sales director, LawWare Ltd
"Global firms have long invested in technology, and in some ways the use of technology is even more important to smaller firms and firms that have the ambition of growing. Software can offer immense time and cost efficiencies for a firm if used correctly and provided by a reputable supplier who understands the industry, thus allowing legal firms to improve the speed and types of communication with their client, which will ultimately lead to improving client satisfaction. It needn’t cost the earth either."
Brian Welsh, Insight Legal Software Ltd
“Law firms embracing technology will enable their staff to work flexibly, from home and will be more productive. Many more clients will want to work digitally, and firms that do not digitise will struggle. Smaller law firms will be around for a long time to come.”
Peter Baverstock, CEO of LEAP
“Digital technology is an opportunity for firms of all sizes to re-imagine the way they operate. Whether through driving greater transparency, or faster processes driving efficiencies and eradicating case backlogs, technology is positively disrupting the way legal services are delivered. By embracing this change, firms can access this untapped opportunity to transform and improve the way they service clients.”
Doug Hargrove, managing director of Legal at Advanced
Legal software – using the cloud, storing and retrieving data
[In association with www.insightlegal.co.uk]
Cloud computing continues to enjoy immense popularity amongst all types of businesses due to its major benefits of flexibility and low-cost deployment. It can also decrease risks to a practice by reducing or entirely eliminating the need for backups. Disaster recovery of the IT infrastructure becomes significantly easier if most of the services are cloud based and there are significant gains in terms of management time and money spent on on-premise servers.
When selecting a software supplier that uses cloud storage you need to be mindful of compliance within the Law Society of Scotland rules governing data compliance in Scotland.
As well as the need for compliance it is also prudent to ask the following;
- Is there a policy in place to access the software and data should the software supplier cease trading?
- What are the processes to retrieve the firm’s data should you chose to move to another supplier?
The latter question is one that very few people ask but is of vital importance. We all know that over time, firms move to different suppliers. For the most part on-site systems have established migration paths that are followed by the new supplier in order to obtain the relevant data from the old platform. However, accessing that data when it is located off-site can present some real issues, particularly when the supplier is not happy about you leaving.
If the supplier is a member of the Legal Software Suppliers Association, for example, they are bound by the rules of that organisation which state that access to the data should be given. Before signing with a new supplier it would be sensible to include within your contract that your software supplier will give you a backup copy of the database, should you wish to leave.
Along with the data, your supplier may well also be storing documents. Your case documents are no less important than your client and case data and you should also ensure that your supplier has a process for you to retrieve all of this information as well. Downloading files individually would be impractical and highly time consuming.
In this issue
- Immigration detention: a case of overuse
- Sexual harassment: don't suffer in silence
- Child disputes: a quicker way through?
- Brexit: where are we now and what happens next?
- Reading for pleasure
- Opinion: Claire McKee
- Book reviews
- President's column
- ScotLIS: the citizens' tool
- People on the move
- People matter
- Historic abuse: the fairness matrix
- Landmark year in legal IT
- Sentence, but no full stop
- Opening up arbitration
- Making the agent pay
- Equal pay: beware the mass claims
- Dealing with conflict
- Claims outside the rules
- Pension transfers – history repeating itself?
- Last instructions
- Scottish Solicitors' Discipline Tribunal
- Standard missives: an unachievable dream?
- SOLAR powered
- Disability rights
- Law reform roundup
- Too hard a drive?
- Settlement: can you avoid cheques?
- Q & A corner
- When 25 is the new 35
- Sorry; not sorry
- Ask Ash
- Plan sets ambitious 2017-18 targets
- Letting agents: prepare to register
- Paralegal pointers
- A way to make an impact