Naturally, this year’s Law and Technology Conference went online – and had no shortage of topical subjects to air

Well, you would expect the Society’s Law and Technology Conference to survive lockdown and go virtual this year, wouldn’t you? And over two mornings, with up to 200 or so people logging on, it did not disappoint.

President Amanda Millar set the tone by reflecting on the scale of changes over the previous six months, and the work that had gone into making them happen.

Asked what had been her big learning point, she replied that the biggest struggle had been conducting tribunal and other hearings remotely, and making sure the issues were covered. Words were important in advocacy skills, and the challenge was to make sure your meaning was getting across.

However she had been able to attend more conferences, not having to travel, and cited as a success story the Society’s summer school for prospective law students, which took
25 participants in its traditional format but this year had seen 70 attend virtually.

As to what we might expect over the next year, she predicted some form of hybrid between the old ways and the new, whether for meetings or court hearings. For the latter, we must not have “a blanket approach to digitisation”, but look at what the hybrid may be while “maintaining the fundamental principles of what we do for society”.

Life after COVID

Not surprisingly, the impact of coronavirus on legal service delivery was a running theme, in particular in the first round table discussion.

Eoin McGrath, lead developer at Thread Legal, opened by saying he had been pleasantly surprised at how the legal industry had responded, with (against some expectations) people working well from home. Previously underused technology was allowing people to be more productive, co-work in real time, give faster feedback, and interact better and more quickly with individual clients.

Before we could become too smug, Lauren Riley, solicitor and founder of The Link App, described how, coming from customer service, she had been shocked at the legal profession’s general approach to technology and client engagement. It was behind other sectors – she instanced the challenger banks – and the gap was growing. While it had adapted quicker than ever over the last six months, there was “still a way to go”.

Clients would respond positively to better communication. “This is an opportunity for firms,” she insisted. “Those who get it right will excel.”

André Boyle, head of IT at Millar & Bryce, addressed how to deliver greater efficiency. Some of his advice involved workflows for routine tasks and spreadsheets to map out your path to progress, but he also valued the personal approach: quiz your vendor or supplier on their system’s full potential; “lean on others” to get where you want to be; and “embrace feedback”. “Everyone has great ideas for the little things that would make their life better” – but don’t pursue them all at once.

McGrath, agreeing, added that everyone now has the opportunity to push changes. The hierarchy of firms had flattened, with people able to put their ideas during Zoom calls rather than having to go “knocking on the door”.

Both acknowledged that it can be difficult for smaller firms to choose the best investment – but now that systems are more accessible, they can be the nimble ones bringing in changes, instead of following in the wake of bigger firms: the jet ski against the tanker, the speakers agreed! And Riley urged practices to make the most of free trials of software.

Addressing issues of work-life balance from homeworking, Riley admitted it can take time to get right, but she had learned to try and separate work from home life. Firms should set clear expectations of what was reasonable. Boyle agreed it was human nature for work to expand into space created, for example commuting time saved. He had a dedicated working space and made a point of leaving it at the end of the day. “It’s OK to disconnect.”

McGrath dealt with greater expectations among clients, which should also be managed, in business terms or otherwise. Make clear that if you are contacted out of hours, you will respond as soon as possible. Some clients work flexible hours too. Overall, you have the chance to improve communication and with it your customer service. “Reach out to clients by whatever means necessary,” was his takeaway.

Riley’s final message was to put yourselves into the shoes of the consumer, and consider how you feel when you are one. “Having technology won’t prove to the consumer that you are innovative.”

Still a world leader

At a time when worries about the UK’s trade and economy abound, some comfort could be found in the keynote presentation by Jenifer Swallow, UK director of Lawtech. While warning against complacency, she highlighted that the UK is in the top three in the world for AI, Europe’s number one for tech startups, and a global fintech hub. We can leverage local strength for a global impact.

Lawtech’s vision is for a digital transformation of the legal sector – a “transformative evolution” delivering world-leading legal services and systems, and it has UK Government funding to help accelerate this. But while Swallow noted the many benefits IT is bringing the profession, she emphasised there is still “a mountain to climb ahead”. Whereas 92% of financial services companies have a “digital first” strategy, many law firms still rely on “antiquated” systems and infrastructure. There are cultural barriers to change: legal services are not yet seen as a product that people consume, and one to be optimised on that basis; and even “digital natives” coming into the profession have a low awareness of the technology in use and its benefits – something she believes should be an integrated part of their courses.

Swallow told us that 60% of businesses “unlock new opportunities” through digital transformation – and SMEs, though they pay out £11.6 billion a year in legal fees, remain underrepresented in terms of getting legal advice. Traditional law firm management structures can be a barrier to change, but she urged her audience not to give up and to keep advocating for change. This needs a bottom-up as well as a top-down approach, the former through changing workflows and improving customer focus. (She is no fan of time based billing either.)

Defence strategy

While honourable mentions should go to Thorntons and Amiqus, who combined to share their experience in making Thorntons a “virtual law firm” through new processes especially at the client information capture stage; to the panel who shared experiences in skills development; and to the closing speakers from ScotlandIS and FinTech Scotland for conveying the importance respectively of digital technology and the FinTech sector to the Scottish economy, in the space available it is worth taking a closer look at the round table on business resilience.

Panel member David Fleming of Mitigo, which provides cybersecurity support especially for smaller firms lacking their own expertise, warned that the worst threat to those whose remote connections are insecure is ransomware. There are a “scary” number of cases coming up; fraudsters scan for remote connections and attack those not securely set up. Phishing emails, tempting the recipient to click on links containing malicious software, are another threat.

His advice was personal training as well as regular warnings – in particular the simulated attack, to test which members of staff will click on a bad link (usually 10-20%). Back these up with email filters, anti-virus software and strong policies on use of social media. Who in the practice should have access to what data, and prompt action to remove the rights of anyone leaving, should also be addressed. But the important thing was to “overcome paralysis” and get started.

Kirstie Steele of the Scottish Business Resilience Centre agreed on the need for a mix of measures to change a firm’s security culture. But it was also important to avoid a blame culture, as the criminals are very clever. She recommended the National Cybersecurity Centre’s Small Business Guide, which has five basic, easy to understand steps that “prevent up to 80% of the most common attacks”.

Lawyer panel members in this session, Austin Lafferty from a small firm perspective and Lynsey Walker from Addleshaw Goddard, respectively promoted the value of spending the money on ongoing training and awareness – not least to protect the funds in the client account – and the importance of a firm’s underlying technical infrastructure, not just to business resilience but much more broadly, and of regular reviews of the platforms in use.

Get the message

If there was one word that cropped up in almost every session, it was communication. Service delivery? Communicate to get everyone facing the same direction and delivering the same goals. Client or customer service? Communication always improves it, and gives reassurance during lengthy transactions. You don’t have to be there 24/7. (And it can become more personalised.) How to retain the firm’s culture and values as we face radically changed working methods? Communicate through your teams. Remote supervision? It’s all about communication. There was even advice to intending future lawyers to get an education in technology – because it’s about communication as well as legal transactions.

Don’t say we didn’t tell you.

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