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Is the legal sector embracing the tech revolution?

(Image credit: Image Credit: IAKOBCHUK VIACHESLAV / Shutterstock)

Dan Taylor, director of systems at Fletchers Solicitors, explains how the legal sector is opening its mind to the innovations tech has to offer.   

At the start of 2017, the Law Society (guardians of the UK legal profession) published a report on the state of tech in the nation’s law firms.   In his opening address, Robert Bourns, head of Law Society of England and Wales, expressed the belief that the reputation of lawyers as technological Luddites was undeserved and that the sector was “one with energy and ideas, ready to promote a revolution in how we deliver legal services.”  

In the same report, however, research into the awareness of lawyers regarding a range of tech innovations revealed a slightly more realistic picture; a sector where innovation is being led by a select few, with the remainder following in their wake.

This is, perhaps, understandable and not too dissimilar to many other professional services, where the emphasis is on human judgement and skill - rather than efficiency and scalability. 

However, what is clear is a growing appetite for innovation and an increasing realisation that technology isn’t replacing professional skill and judgement, but instead enhancing it by enabling lawyers to focus their energies to best the effect.

What tech is currently capturing the attention of lawyers?

The Law Society found that, at best, a quarter of lawyers are unaware of emerging technologies (in areas such as artificial intelligence), rising to 38 per cent, 64 per cent and 75 per cent for Big Data analysis, IBM Watson and RAVN respectively.

However, at the other end of the spectrum, the sectors’ innovators are focusing on a range of potential solutions, with artificial intelligence and natural language processing (NLP) being most closely followed by 14 per cent to 20 per cent of the most innovative firms. These areas of tech are narrowly ahead of other appealing solutions, such as Robotic Process Automation (RPA) and expert systems.

A key reason why these are being singled out and gaining the most attention is that they are seen to be most closely aligned to improving client services, making the administration of legal services smoother and quicker, while maximising the quality time with their lawyer.

The report also singles out the desire by firms to use tech to become more agile and stimulate growth. In particular, firms are looking to increase collaboration – with those both inside and outside the firm – and use technology to access new markets, particularly by better serving the needs of international clients.

What specific solutions are lawyers looking for?

In 2015, there were 600 legaltech start-ups offering new solutions to legal clients. Despite this, the report by the Law Society found that there is still suspicion over the extent to which these can currently replace tasks carried out by lawyers and their human assistants.

Instead, the interest appears to be focusing on the future development of ‘augmented workforces’, where computers and humans form a true partnership. Machines will be capable of following basic human-to-human social interactions and lawyers will possess more computer skills to better tailor and utilise technology to support their day-to-day work.

The role for AI

AI programs and solutions have the potential to be invaluable when it comes to coping with the increasing amounts of data that lawyers have to handle, making it easier and quicker to sift through and analyse large collections of documents. It can also be used to automate a number of time-consuming tasks, particularly when it comes to legal research. 

Greater use of intelligent systems could allow lawyers to focus more of their time on more complex, high value tasks like the core legal analysis, driving efficiencies and helping lawyers to make quick and accurate decisions. Such systems also have the potential to reduce overhead costs and increase profits. 

Law firms have operated online for many years, but at the moment, many firms only offer a small selection of their services online. A large number of legal services offered online merely comprise of external links to communication services, such as Skype, or online forms to be completed for primary legal processes, such as conveyancing or probate matters. Very few legal firms offer “end to end” fully integrated online services, which have long been adopted in other sectors, such as insurance or financial services. 

At some point, law firms need to acknowledge that the legal expertise that’s long been the preserve of lawyers is becoming more freely available to the public. Once this is accepted and embraced, law firms will need to start offering their services both in the traditional way in order to survive, while also offering a variety of different online-based options to allow the client more flexibility in how they purchase legal services. 

Introducing intuitive management systems

As of yet, such an intuitive case management system isn’t currently available, even though the technology exists and we all use it. This would reduce the time spent on case management significantly and would free up more time to get through more of the core legal work. The development of such a system will surely dominate the market, and those law firms that adopt these systems would see huge efficiencies in productivity and cost savings.

The Law Society’s report reveals much about where tech and law with combine and thrive.  Most notably, it is those areas where tech isn’t seeking to replace the human element, but instead to enhance it - augmenting rather than replacing the skills and judgment of lawyers to the advantage of their clients. 

Dan Taylor, director of systems, Fletchers Solicitors
Image Credit: IAKOBCHUK VIACHESLAV / Shutterstock