The pandemic has helped tech innovations become more established, but should legal tech be used merely to rebuild, or to create something truly revolutionary?
On 12 March, the UK government set out its ‘10 Tech Priorities’. Oliver Dowden, secretary of state for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, said: ‘If we want to build back better, stronger and greener from the pandemic, tech has to be at the heart of our recovery,’ adding that tech is the one industry with ‘the power to turbocharge the rest’. However, the question is, should we rebuild a better version of what we had, or should we build something different?
Most of the government’s strategic tech goals directly apply to legal tech.
1. Roll out world-class digital infrastructure nationwide: The pandemic has seen the legal sector accepting cloud computing. According to Briefing’s Legal IT Landscapes 2021 report, 70% of firms now expect most of their core IT infrastructure (that is, practice, case and document management systems) will be in the cloud by 2024.
2. Unlocking the power of data: Legal services are already data-focused. Many firms employ data analysts, and data science is at the heart of innovative offerings from law firms and legal tech start-ups.
3. Building a tech-savvy nation: The legal sector has become ‘tech-savvy’, partly due to the pandemic and partly due to the high profile of legal tech start-ups and innovation. But skills in, and knowledge of, tech remain unevenly distributed.
4. Keeping the UK safe and secure online: Like other sectors that routinely handle sensitive information, law firms need to maintain a focus on cybersecurity, particularly as the pandemic has highlighted remote working as a key risk.
5. Fuelling a new era of start-ups and scale‑ups: The legal sector is ahead of the curve here, with a global start-up community supported by public funding and venture capital.
6. Unleashing the transformational power of tech and AI: Artificial intelligence is already driving new ways of working and creating business models that are transforming the sector.
7. Championing free and fair digital trade: This perhaps is more relevant to lawyers’ work than the provision of legal services, although many legal tech products can be used in multiple jurisdictions, supported by a global legal tech community.
8. Leading the global conversation on tech: The legal sector is achieving this in professional services and with corporate and commercial clients.
9. Levelling up digital prosperity across the UK: Again, the sector is finding new ways to address unmet legal needs, bringing more social diversity into the profession, and encouraging access to justice initiatives.
10. Using digital innovation to reach net zero: Green initiatives in the legal sector include the Campaign for Greener Arbitrations’ Green Pledge: an undertaking to reduce the environmental footprint of arbitrations by corresponding and meeting online to reduce travel, replacing hard copies of documents with electronic bundles, and offsetting carbon emissions.
The pandemic has already reduced the sector’s environmental impact. Mid-sized law firms are saving £10,000 a month on average on printing costs, and remote working has reduced law firms’ carbon footprint generally. This is likely to be a permanent change as many firms plan to continue remote or hybrid working practices.
In her keynote presentation at Legal Geek’s Thomson Reuters Takeover event, Elizabeth Duffy, global head of client services at Acritas, a market research firm that is part of Thomson Reuters, discussed the pandemic as a catalyst for change.
While legal departments have been experiencing increased workloads during this time – particularly at the start of the pandemic – this has not been reflected in budgets, so the ‘more for less’ conundrum of client expectations was exacerbated, she reflected. The drivers of attraction to law firms – why corporates work with particular firms – were also consistent in virtual relationships, but showed an increased emphasis on tech and innovation in service delivery. Diversity and inclusion joined trust and personal relationships in terms of human values.
Duffy examined the findings of a survey of 800 lawyers on the impact of remote working. While the advantages of remote working have been well covered, addressing three key challenges will require renewed focus on connecting and communicating.
1. Training: developing junior talent is harder when juniors cannot work closely with experienced colleagues.
2. Business development: remote working makes it harder to start conversations with clients that are not about specific matters or tasks.
3. Collaboration: building strong, trusting business relationships that improve net promoter scores and increase spending is harder to do virtually.
A discussion that immediately followed Duffy’s talk revealed that another challenge for lawyers working remotely is systems interoperability – they were struggling with too many disconnected applications.
However, the benefits of flexible working outweigh the challenges, and 75% of law firm partners who responded to the Acritas survey wanted to retain flexible working practices and some degree of remote working after the pandemic. A poll of the Takeover event’s delegates showed that 91% were in favour of continuing with flexible and remote working.
This marks a major cultural change for law firms, many of which invest heavily in office space. Their next challenge will be to keep their people connected with the business, and its clients, particularly when they are not in the office. Duffy suggested that law firms’ investments are likely to move from physical spaces to technology and talent.
This year’s model
Another new legal platform emerging from the lockdown is Bamboo – a shortcut for setting up a law firm. Michael Burne, CEO of Carbon Law Partners, reverse-engineered his spoke-and-hub law firm model into a platform for branded law firms. The idea came from his laptop, which was powered by an Intel chip. ‘Intel doesn’t make computers, but its chips power multiple brands,’ he explains. ‘This inspired me to create a structure that powers multiple law firm brands.’
Bamboo takes the Carbon Law model further by offering an SRA-regulated framework that includes regulatory authorisation and PI insurance as well as financial and legal operations, including back-office operations and cloud-based tech systems and support. Bamboo charges a monthly subscription plus a percentage of turnover. Effectively it is a managed service for anyone who wants to set up a law firm.
Another advantage is speed. Unique Solutions Legal, the first law firm created using the Bamboo platform, took just four weeks to set up.
Paused for thought
While the pandemic has made tech central to our lives, it has also forced us to slow down. It is worth taking the opportunity to consider how we interact with technology.
This idea was expressed by Sherry Turkle, a professor of social studies of science and technology at MIT, in a recent episode of the NPR podcast Fresh Air. She described the pandemic experience of tech as ‘liminal time’, a term from anthropology that refers to periods of transition between boundaries and borders.
‘The rules are broken, and you get a chance to reassess what you really need,’ said Turkle. ‘This is what we have now: a chance to come back and not be wowed by technology; [rather] to reassess the virtue of human relationships and to act more deliberately in our relationship with [technology] since it is no longer just a tool.’
When it comes to legal tech, this means assessing whether a goal or priority is best achieved by tech or by other means, such as collaboration. One such example is oneNDA, which will ultimately reduce the use of technology and improve productivity.
Clubbing together for oneNDA
OneNDA came about when Electra Japonas and Roisin Noonan of The Law Boutique realised that lawyers spend too much time creating and reviewing non-disclosure agreements. The oneNDA initiative is bringing together the legal community to create a universal, standardised NDA that will provide commercial protection without unnecessary delay.
‘Legal tech is highly invested in AI and automation, but perhaps we should first step back and look at what we want to achieve, and we want to save time,’ says Japonas. ‘If, as a community, we agree to standardise the document we use most often, we will have fewer documents to review.’
Japonas aired the idea for oneDNA on social media in February. When it received a positive response from her connections, she launched a website, hoping to get 100 companies to sign up to working together on a universal NDA. On 1 March she had 331 sign-ups, and that number is rising.
'Legal tech is highly invested in AI and automation, but perhaps we should first step back and look at what we want to achieve'
As well as saving time, oneNDA aims to add clarity and minimise potential friction between parties who are beginning a business relationship. While there are plans to automate, Japonas is focused on keeping it simple. She recalls speaking to a lawyer who started practising before firms used computers, who observed that when word processing made it easy to add and amend clauses, NDAs became longer and more complex. OneNDA aims to undo that complexity and take back lawyers’ time.
‘We have AI tools to read and analyse long, complex contracts, but the core problem is that the contracts are too difficult in the first place,’ says Japonas.
Her call to action has brought together law firms, in-house lawyers, legal consultants and legal tech vendors to collaborate on a template that will save everyone time, effort and cost. This is an example of effective communication, collaboration and pre-emptive negotiation – a key skill for lawyers – reducing the need for a tech solution.