Above: Jill Sinclair
What exactly is a legal technologist? Probably the picture that most readily comes to mind is the IT expert in a big firm, working to streamline systems and probably also on cutting-edge support for major clients.
That is possible. But the profiles of the first six to have gained the Law Society of Scotland’s specialist accreditation in the role present a much more diverse picture, showing it to be a string that a good few solicitors, and others, could add to their bow.
To date, as well as two who might match the initial idea – one a solicitor and one not – we have a solicitor in a specialist team who integrates team IT with that of clients; the head of IT in a support services company; the head of a practice whose vision is competitive advantage through IT-led customer service; and the founder of a niche practice who speaks the language of his tech-focused client base.
Not just backroom staff
A notable feature, common to some degree to all six, is the extent to which their work not only enhances their businesses’ own IT, but directly assists clients as well.
Such is the experience of Sam Moore, innovation manager at Burness Paull and the first to achieve the accreditation. His input can range, he explains, from an informal discussion of a specific process, to more direct input such as assisting during a vendor demonstration, or temporarily joining a project team: “We’ve found that many clients value the input of an experienced legal technologist if they don’t have one on-staff, and being accredited by the Law Society of Scotland adds an extra level of assurance around that expertise.”
Steve Dalgleish at Shepherd & Wedderburn, a non-lawyer who began in digital marketing before moving across to IT, which he now heads, paints a similar picture. The firm’s Smarter Working team, which he co-manages, covers both internal and external angles, with bespoke solutions for clients supporting legal process for volume transactions: “We’ve done quite a lot of work with some large clients, to dig down into common transaction types and figure out what the touchpoints are, how they could be made easier, and improve the flow of data between us and the client, and their clients.”
Jill Sinclair, DWF partner and head of Counter-fraud in Scotland, takes such engagement further. Her team has won a series of awards based on innovative technology-based solutions to combatting fraudulent behaviour, and her accreditation was based on her developing case management systems to improve efficiency, on process mapping and alignment with service level agreements, and on assisting insurer clients to develop pre-litigation strategies using both DWF’s and clients’ own technology solutions to allow claims to be routed more efficiently.
For Rob Aberdein, CEO at Aberdeins, his very mission in investing in technology is to attract business. Indeed he sees himself as a potential disruptor in the way that Elon Musk is shaking up the car industry, and his firm’s progress in IT as a constant quest to stay one jump ahead of the competition.
“It’s to make it a journey that customers buy into,” he affirms. “If they look at 10 law firms I want mine to be the one they choose because they think they will have a better customer experience. It will be easier, simpler, more commercial. I think all consumers nowadays are looking for ways for companies to deliver a better customer experience, and that is our DNA, that’s the spirit of what we are trying to build.”
Completing the roll call, Andre Boyle, head of IT at Millar & Bryce, is the only accredited specialist to date not to work for a legal practice. For him, the focus is on building what the business needs in order to support customers. “What I find though is that we can’t move forward the way we need to without really listening to and getting feedback from our customers, so it quite often involves sitting with them, understanding the processes and challenges they have and trying to make their life easier.”
Some are born to it...
Do these portraits show that to become an accredited legal technologist, you have to have been more or less weaned on IT? Not necessarily. Certainly Stuart used to “build and mess about with” computers with his scientist father; Aberdein “was one of these kids who had a ZX Spectrum when I was about eight years old... my house is a bit like Starship Enterprise”; and Moore’s first passion was computer science. Sinclair however just happened to find herself working with, and appreciating the potential of, case management systems at an early stage in her career.
Aberdein offers the observation that since COVID-19: “I’ve seen people who would typically not be adopters of technology, become evangelical about WhatsApp and other applications that have enabled them to continue a normal existence while in lockdown, so we’ve almost had a turbocharging of a certain generation who were averse to consuming legal services in a progressive technology-led way, to saying I’d actually prefer to do that.”
It would be wrong, then, to divide the profession permanently into those who are naturally at home with IT and those who more or less need spoon fed to take it up. As Dalgleish puts it: “We’re finding a lot less resistance to engaging with technology now than we did even six months ago. Some people will struggle, but I think it’s very much the minority now. People are realising that technology is here to stay and if we don’t do it, others will; that it has potential to make their life better, to allow them to do the proper legal work where the value is added, and to make it more interesting for them. It takes away a lot of the more routine tasks.”
Moore takes up the theme, pointing to further potential for automation of “those more routine areas of practice, such as information gathering at the start of a transaction, where lawyers perhaps don’t need to be so hands-on. Streamlining the information gathering element of most transactions would be an easy way to start using technology”.
Burness Paull, he adds, has found that automated systems have the potential to save upwards of 50% on repetitive tasks. “The trick is picking the right tool for the best use cases, and recognising that sometimes a simple solution is preferable to a sophisticated one.”
Sometimes, indeed, it can allow you to carry out tasks that you otherwise couldn’t or wouldn’t do at all. An AI (artificial intelligence) tool enabled the firm to carry out a mass review of 30,000 near-identical forms to extract one key piece of information from each (or record if it wasn’t found). What might have taken 150-160 working hours to do manually, was completed in an afternoon, using AI to identify the data required and extract it into a template, “with a high degree of confidence in the resulting data”.
As a slight digression, much of the specialists’ mission now is to make systems ever easier to use. For Boyle, the goal is “to get to the point where technology simply blends into the background”. Whereas in the past it often created extra admin, as people took data from documents supplied and entered it into their own systems, he is now seeking to save time, for both fee earners and backup staff, by “ensuring that every interaction a firm has with our systems through their processes is light touch, so that they can be as efficient as possible”.
“We’ve had a turbocharging of a generation who were averse to consuming legal services in a progressive technology-led way, to saying I’d actually prefer to do that”
He explains: “Knowing as I do the deep level of data focus that lawyers have, we are looking at providing data rather than documents. It means that we can enable processes within legal firms to move forward automatically rather than depend on human intervention, enabling members to use their intellect to focus on the work that they do rather than admin.
“One of my longstanding goals in working [for three legal firms before he joined Millar & Bryce] has been to reduce the admin overload that takes people away from doing the really incredible legal work they do. Where we now want to get to is to reduce the effort required to get the search data needed and, in time, not to have to enter it into their systems as well.”
Who should seek the accreditation? For most of our interviewees, it is something that enhances client (or customer) trust and confidence, especially as it carries the cachet of recognition by the Society.
Stuart suggests that anyone involved in technology, whether immersed in how their own organisation is functioning or in a more client facing role, should consider doing so: “The technologist has to bridge the gap between law and technology in order to be able to best advise the client about their products and about how their technology interfaces with the law. We have to do a deep dive into each of our clients’ pieces of technology, have maybe days learning about it at a granular level before we start trying to draft contracts for its use.”
Sinclair observes that technology impacts on every sector, has become increasingly important over recent months, and the more people who are aware of what it can offer their practice area, to drive efficiencies and deliver better client service, the better for the profession. “The team of legal technologist accredited specialists have a very diverse background and I would recommend that anyone with an interest in technology solutions and experience in this area should consider applying, even if it is not the main focus of their role.”
Dalgleish focuses on those in a support role. “Accreditation gives confidence to the legal teams that the technology side is well understood, and that appropriate thought has gone into ensuring a correct workflow, providing a positive experience for clients and colleagues and delivering commercial benefits to both... There are people in my team who maybe don’t have the external profile but they are absolutely capable of being leaders. It could encourage those up and coming team members to get accreditation as a possible route to career development.”
Boyle too would like to see more IT people in legal firms become certified, “to help demonstrate to the fee earners that there is a deeper level of understanding of business processes in IT departments, that it’s not just support provision. IT departments can provide consulting services as well”. In addition: “I’d really like to see suppliers and vendors get on board. I’m obviously pleased as Punch to be the first accredited legal technologist outside a legal firm; I appreciate I came from a legal firm background but I think it’s a great first step to get others involved.”
Moore identifies certain qualities for the role. First of all, attention to detail remains crucial, to understand what is going on, and recognise potential issues. “This is a timeless requirement for a lawyer, and I don’t think that will ever change.” The second is strong project management skills, to be able to break down workstreams into smaller deliverables, and plan work accordingly. Third, perhaps more novel, is curiosity. “I think this quality is more important now than it has been in the past, as the modern lawyer needs to be more curious about the way things work”: in understanding their client’s business, and also what is coming down the technology pipeline which will change both their own business and their client’s.
“Being willing to question the status quo and being open to new ideas is fast becoming an essential skill for the modern lawyer who wants to embrace legal technology.”
Aberdein puts it pithily: “I now have a bunch of peers and a marketing opportunity, and some sort of validation that everything I’ve been doing the last 10 years isn’t madness basically.”
An unexpected feature of the interviews was that more than one of our accredited legal technologists prefers to speak of customers rather than clients. It is understandable with Andre Boyle at services company Millar & Bryce, but both Alan Stuart and Rob Aberdein, as leaders of smaller legal practices, think the same way.
“They’re called customers because we think that’s what they are,” says Stuart. “We think of customer relations rather than clients – customer development, customer retention, and so on.” His firm has low overheads – everyone has always worked from home – and as many customers pay by retainer as by transaction. “They like that because they don’t think the meter is running when they speak to us and they know they can put in their budget what their legal costs are going to be.”
Rob Aberdein also thinks in terms of providing “a better customer journey”. “It’s something I guess from my banking litigation background. Nowadays everybody the bank has lent money to becomes a customer; it just has more positive connotations than ‘borrower’, and it sounds more progressive. With legal services, I like it because it focuses the minds of the team, it’s about thinking customer service, customer journeys. Sometimes lawyers, and I think most of the profession would admit it, are quite bad about forgetting that. We’re smart, typically quite academic, we ended up in a profession and make our living with our brains. Sometimes we forget it’s ultimately about the customer, in my view, and that’s why I think of customers as opposed to clients.”
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