In the opening session of Legal Geek’s Uncertain Decade Summit, Mark Cohen, CEO of Legal Mosaic, discussed applying Amazon’s customer experience model to law and reminded us that Amazon’s marketplace is key to its differentiated offering. Tech, artificial intelligence and data are enablers of Amazon’s end-to-end experience, but they are not a substitute for its sharp focus on getting its customers the products they want, when they want and at the right price, he said. He raised the possibility of Amazon or another big tech platform launching a curated marketplace for legal services in the same way that Thomson Reuters and others are offering curated legal tech marketplaces. Richard Susskind highlighted the distinction between automation and innovation: while automation is about applying technology to existing processes, innovation is about developing new services and service delivery methodologies, some of which are made possible by technology.

Joanna Goodman

Joanna Goodman

Other sessions looked at bridging the innovation gap between technologists and lawyers. Clifford Chance gave a talk and led a workshop on helping innovation programmes engage with practising lawyers. Kingman Ink’s live illustrations added an animated dimension to the workshop that presented innovation as ‘updating the workbench’ by focusing on process improvement and identifying modular tasks that present opportunities to introduce efficiencies with minimum disruption. Referring to Susskind’s earlier distinction, this seemed to be more about automation than innovation, but the purpose of the discussion was valid: to take lawyers on an innovation journey and make them joint owners of the change programme, alongside the innovators – basically to engage them in disrupting the status quo and embracing new ways of working.

Strategic subversion

An alternative strategy to engagement is disruption – or subversion. KGB defector Yuri Bezmenov’s 1983 lecture on subversion, in which he described Soviet propaganda efforts to alter people’s perceptions by undermining established beliefs, has frequently resurfaced in recent months as crisis communication, regulations and restrictions have become daily occurrences.

If we replace ‘disruption’, which is often used in the context of transforming legal services, with ‘subversion’ [of traditional norms] the same process can explain the legal sector’s slow technological revolution. It took a crisis – Covid-19 – to accelerate digital transformation and bring technology to the front and centre of legal services provision. Central to Bezmenov’s argument is that subversion is only possible when a significant element of a population is willing to be subverted. He uses the analogy of a martial artist redirecting their opponent’s strength to win the match. So whole-scale technology adoption and digital transformation across legal services require the involvement of practising lawyers.

Emma Jackson

Emma Jackson

Evaluating subversion

Aaron Miller, solutions engineer at software company Kong Inc, posted the following equation on LinkedIn on the value of solutions development: value = cost of the problem – cost of the solution or ‘V = P – S’.

This is based on the thesis that decision-makers tend to focus on the cost of a solution rather than the cost of the problem it is required to address, including the cost of doing nothing while a solution has not been found.

Miller recounts a classic example of subversive technology design where the value is in changing behaviours rather than cost. ‘Whenever I think of tech forcing functions, I think of Steve Jobs intentionally leaving the arrow keys off the original Macintosh’s keyboard to make people use the mouse to move the cursor,’ he says.

Emma Jackson, client innovation manager at Mills & Reeve, agrees, observing that the value of a new application, or of automating an unpopular task, can be to increase job satisfaction, which improves retention rates. ‘It’s not as straightforward as saying a task used to take three hours, but now it takes one hour,’ she says.

A slow revolution

Until the pandemic struck, the legal sector was slow to change. ‘Fourteen years after the Legal Services Act, law companies are still described as “alternative legal services providers”. Nobody calls a digital camera an “alternative camera”,’ observes John Croft, co-founder and president of law company Elevate.

‘When something becomes part of business as usual, is it still “innovative”?’ he asks. ‘It is innovative when the first person does it, but we are now waiting for the rest of this trillion-dollar industry [the legal sector] to catch up.’

Despite the introduction of new technology, law firms are still reluctant to shift from traditional models and paradigms such as hourly billing, which is based on the time spent doing a task, rather than the outcome. Elevate takes a different approach – in fact, its name reflects its strategic priorities. ‘We called our company “Elevate” because it reflects our desire to help our customers improve their future operations from where they stand today,’ says Croft. ‘By moving away from the billable hour, we want legal services providers (law firms, law departments and law companies) to focus on outcomes.’

The same sentiment could be applied to legal innovation. While recent years have seen the development of the law firm innovation function, the danger is that innovation will become siloed in its own department that is run differently from the legal practice, and builds productised solutions that are sold to clients, or spun out as separate entities, independent from the original firm. None of this is conducive to lawyer involvement.

It doesn’t have to a completely new idea. It can be something that is used in another sector or someone’s previous firm

Emma Jackson, Mills & Reeve

Educating the innovators

The Legal Geek workshop explored ways of encouraging practising lawyers to engage in innovation – in effect to involve them in subverting familiar ways of working and not resisting change. Clifford Chance legal technologist Conan Hines highlighted the importance of continuous learning for both lawyers and innovators. While many law schools have introduced modules on legal technology and innovation, and firms are increasingly introducing legal tech training roles, it is equally important to educate the innovators, especially when their roles do not require legal training. ‘Making sure that the innovation team understand how legal work is done helps the firm progress beyond an innovation project mindset into an innovation cycle mindset,’ he added.

Croft believes that lawyers do not need to become technologists, but simply need to use enterprise platforms in the same way as other professionals. ‘Lawyers don’t need to become software engineers! Chief financial officers use enterprise platforms to run the finance department and provide all a company’s financials (FX, GAAP reporting etc). In fact, if they don’t have such a platform, they are likely to get pulled up by their auditors. Similarly, lawyers should use an enterprise legal management system to run the legal department. This should not be called innovation.’

Spreading the message

Communication, which also underpins subversion, is more commonly used to bring lawyers on the innovation journey. For Mills & Reeve, innovation is built on engaging its community. Since the pandemic, client innovation manager Emma Jackson and her team have received more requests from lawyers looking to improve their tech skills. She explains that this is not specifically because they want to engage in innovation, but because they want to work more self-sufficiently and make fewer help desk calls. However, boosting tech competence has produced a significant uptick in suggestions on the innovation hub, a crowdsourcing platform that is used to collect ideas from across the firm.

An innovation mindset

Mills & Reeve’s strategy is to use communication to build an innovation mindset. The firm classifies innovation as anything that potentially adds value to the firm and/or its clients.

‘It doesn’t have to be a completely new idea,’ adds Jackson. ‘It can be something that is used in another sector or someone’s previous firm.’

Every year there is an innovation week, and in November 2019 this included a two-day hackathon, in which six teams from across the firm competed to build an innovative client solution. The winning entry was Volume Control, a triage system for general counsel, which went on to win an external innovation award.

Innovation is not always about new technology. Volume Control was built on Thomson Reuters’ HighQ platform, which many firms use for collaborative working. Mills & Reeve originally introduced HighQ at the suggestion of a lateral hire who had used it at their former firm.

As well as organising innovation and ideation workshops and events, Jackson and her team have created an internal app called What the Tech? to help lawyers get to know the firm’s tech resources. Basically, the lawyers answer some questions, and it directs them to an appropriate solution and a plain English explanation of how to use it. They are helping themselves to technology competence. Jackson and her team have accelerated their app production – for clients and internally – by switching to a low-code platform that enables those with no knowledge of coding to develop apps.

How can smaller firms take the first step on the innovation journey? This is where regional tech hubs add value. Jackson has joined the Birmingham Law Society Legal Tech Committee, which is a (currently virtual) forum for local firms to share knowledge and inspire each other. Croft urges firms to use the changes they have made over the past year as a springboard for innovation.

‘Don’t rush back to the way you used to do things before 2020,’ he advises. ‘Look at how you delivered work to your clients over the last year and see how you can learn from that. How have you used technology to improve your clients’ experience of working with you, and improve your colleagues’ work life experience too?’

Notwithstanding the pandemic boosting digital transformation and technology adoption, the future is still unevenly distributed, but some law firms and legal services providers are leading the way.