There is no more appropriate time to speak about lawyers and tech than now, when nearly all of us are working from home using technology that did not exist a decade or two ago. 

Jonathan Goldsmith

Jonathan Goldsmith

With great timeliness (well, it came out as lockdown began), the University of Oxford, in association with the Law Society, has produced a study on ‘Lawtech adoption and training’, based on a survey of solicitors in England and Wales.

Even if most of the findings can be guessed at, it is worthwhile knowing that the guesses are true, and so drawing conclusions. Many thousands of questionnaires were sent out, and 353 usable replies make up the basis of the report.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, the three most common contexts in which solicitors use lawtech are ‘document/knowledge management’ (80%), ‘accounts/time recording’ (69%) and ‘document automation/matter workflow’ (43%).

The question immediately arises as to whether the first two are really lawtech uses, as usually defined. Businesses outside the law need ‘document/knowledge management’ and ‘accounts/time recording’, and firms may be using generic software used by other professions and businesses. ‘Document automation’ sounds more like the kind of tech more specifically geared to use by lawyers.

It shows that tech is widely used for back office functions, but not so much for the legal side of the business.

This is borne out by the next finding, which is that adoption of lawtech that makes use of artificial intelligence is low. Just 27% of respondents reported using it for ‘legal research’, 16% for ‘due diligence’, and 12% for ‘e-discovery/e-disclosure/technology assisted review’.

There is a similar review about to be undertaken across EU small law firms. An EU grant has been awarded to the European Lawyers Foundation and the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe to implement a project on Artificial Intelligence for Lawyers (AI4Lawyers). Its first stage, currently under implementation, is to prepare an overview on the ‘average state of the art’ IT capabilities of lawyers and law firms in the EU, together with a comparative analysis of best practices in the US, UK and Canada. The study will look at many of the same issues as the Oxford University report, but across a range of member states.

The Oxford report also focuses on the lawtech training received by lawyers. This is something about which I have written before, most recently last month, when I cited the American Bar Association’s model rule that ‘a lawyer should keep abreast of changes in the law and its practice, including the benefits and risks associated with relevant technology’. I was sorry that the SRA has not gone done this route for us.

The Oxford study shows that half of respondents have received some lawtech training during the past three years. This was most commonly for specific software packages adopted by their employer (38%). Less common was generic lawtech training, in matters such as ‘legal issues raised by use of technology’ (12%) or ‘project management’ (11%).

41% of respondents said that they were sufficiently trained to use new technology at work (only 41%!). Four-fifths said that productivity at their organisation would improve if lawyers were trained further in how to use new technology. In particular, respondents anticipated future training needs in the following order: 1. data analytics; 2. legal issues raised by use of AI technology; 3. software packages; 4. ethical issues raised by use of AI technology; 5. digital literacy; and 6. innovation techniques.

A mismatch can be seen between the areas in which solicitors are being trained, and in those in which they think that they should be trained. Only half are being trained in lawtech issues anyway, and of those between a third and a half are being trained in their firms’ newly acquired packages – but of course they want to be trained, and should be trained, in the way AI and lawtech innovation are affecting the profession.

A quality regulator, keen to ensure that the profession stays on top of the many issues which IT throws up, and that the public benefits from lawtech through widespread adoption by the profession, would introduce incentives for solicitors to be trained in these areas. But the SRA has shown no interest in continuing professional development for years, and has given up nearly all its powers in the field.

The final area of work of the Oxford study relates to multi-disciplinary teams (defined as working on a day-to-day basis with IT/legal innovation specialists, legal project managers, data scientists, and/or process mapping experts).

40% worked in such teams, a greater proportion of them being in-house solicitors (49%), compared to those in private practice (36%). They were more likely to use AI-assisted lawtech in specifically legal fields.

The overall message, as I see it, is that more, much more, needs to be done, to ensure that our profession surfs the IT wave.


Jonathan Goldsmith is Law Society Council member for EU matters and a former secretary general of the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe. All views expressed are personal and are not made in his capacity as a Law Society Council member nor on behalf of the Law Society


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