Solicitors are concerned about the impact of automation on their jobs. But the manifold benefits of the many innovations coming to market should be a cause for celebration

Legal services are a fundamental support mechanism for our society and economy.  They provide confidence in the exchange of everything from finance, goods, services and homes. They help businesses and citizens to navigate and comply with the law while enabling them to hold to account those who do not. Legal services enable access to justice, so that all can exercise their rights, and in turn prosperity and fairness for all.

Stephen Browning

Stephen Browning

But providing legal services is resource-and knowledge-intensive. The complexity of the subject matter requires years of specialist training. There are only so many hours in the day and only so many qualified lawyers in the world. This has constrained the affordability and scalability of the service to the broader population.

How can we maximise the value that the service creates for clients, and how do we most efficiently make use of this resource so that it is more accessible for all?

Legal technologies, when developed and implemented correctly, offer the potential to improve the speed, quality and overall client experience of the service while reducing the cost. It can also create opportunities to provide new and existing services to a wider range of clients, improving access to the services and achieving better client outcomes.

In 2018 UK Research and Innovation’s (UKRI) Innovate UK and Economic and Social Research Council combined forces to stimulate innovation in high-value service sectors such as legal, understand the opportunities and challenges, and start to address barriers to developing next-generation services. By bringing together creative minds from academic, legal and technology backgrounds across 40+ projects, we have seen a diverse range of knowledge and applications developed that will shape the future of legal services and provide benefits that will span across the sector, the economy and society. Below are some examples of what can be achieved through collaborative research and innovation, and the benefits that can be delivered.

Modernising property transactions

Buying and selling property is a complex and slow process, vulnerable to failure and filled with risks such as fraud. Many firms have embraced solutions such as e-signatures and digital ID verification during the pandemic, but these are just two small examples of how the process can be improved. The opportunity spans much further than simply increasing the speed of the process.  

Orbital Witness has sped up the due diligence involved in the property transaction process by developing AI in collaboration with HM Land Registry and the University of Southampton. This automatically reviews and assesses the risk and complexity of commercial properties. The software has now checked hundreds of thousands of properties, which they estimate has saved over 5,000 days’ worth of time spent undertaking due diligence.

The increased speed and saved costs afford the timely delivery of value to clients. But their technology is also ‘always on’, less susceptible to the human errors inherent in lengthy manual reviews, thus allowing lawyers to focus on the unique and contentious issues of any case, thereby improving the quality of the service.

Similarly, Thirdfort is a digital ID verification platform designed for lawyers. In collaboration with Mishcon de Reya and the Land Registry, it has developed AI that has been trained to detect signs of fraud. The technology reduces the time and cost spent by solicitors undertaking fraud checks and can help protect solicitors and clients from frauds that might have been missed. So much so that insurers are now willing to offer solicitors cheaper professional indemnity cover if they use Thirdfort’s service.

The potential of AI to improve the buying and selling process has not gone unnoticed. Last autumn Oxford Brookes University’s NextGenPSF project, in conjunction with CILEx Regulation, the Solicitors Regulation Authority and Council for Licensed Conveyancers, held a conveyancing design sprint to explore how AI can ‘de-risk’ the conveyancing process and open up the market to a broader range of firms to help inform their approach.

Smarter litigation

Forecasting the cost of legal cases is complex and reliant on a diverse array of human experience, judgement and data. This can cause challenges in obtaining accuracy and consistency in forecasting costs, leading to uncertainty and an excessive amount of funds held in reserve by clients involved in litigation or a claim. Frontier Labs, in collaboration with Weightmans, has developed a system called MatterLab that combines human-centred design and AI to augment cost lawyers in the prediction of matter costs. By providing estimates to a much higher degree of accuracy, they enable increased confidence for both the lawyer and client while freeing up client funds to be spent elsewhere.

Meanwhile, Solomonic, a litigation intelligence platform, in collaboration with Warwick University, developed machine-learning algorithms to augment the analysis of thousands of court cases based on a large number of criteria, providing insights at speed and greater scale to litigation researchers and organisations who get into disputes. These data-driven insights are used to provide better outcome predictions for cases and data to support advice to clients.

Opening up access

Technology has long promised to help provide affordable access to justice. We funded Etic Lab to undertake a feasibility study for the application of data management, AI and associated technologies to support the work of those who work in affordable justice. The study identified a range of systemic barriers to the adoption of digital technologies throughout the sector and used this to inform a set of technological proposals that could help address these issues and develop solutions. These included a privacy-preserving integrated communications suite, Kuva; data tools for surveying the digital maturity of the legal advice sector; and privacy-preserving data access methods to enable insights across the legal advice sector to be shared without movement of the data.

Export finance has been traditionally reserved for larger organisations because the costs involved in managing the transaction have been too high for lenders and traders to engage with for small transactions. A significant portion of the cost emerges from the legal services involved in contract development and due diligence. Satoshi Systems has developed a commodity trading finance platform that uses AI and blockchain to standardise and automate trade finance. It also collaborated with Sullivan and Worcester to automate the contract-drafting process by identifying clauses and terms for a specific type of commodity finance transaction. The tool asks questions to the user and generates the most feasible legal agreement. Solutions such as this will drastically bring down the costs of trade finance, opening up the market to SMEs. 

Where are we now?

When the pandemic hit, businesses across the UK faced the challenge of learning how to work remotely. This led to a wave of digital adoption that would otherwise have taken years to occur. It would be an unfair generalisation to characterise all lawyers as being technophobic, but the evidence suggests that the use of digital technologies has not been forthcoming for some time. Nevertheless, when faced with no alternative firms took the leap. We saw the use of digital signatures and ID verification, the cloud and even remote courts. Large law firms have now squarely turned their attention towards digital transformation. But the legal services market has unique challenges and is diverse, with firms of all shapes and sizes.

Oxford Brookes

Oxford Brookes University: developed AI-readiness toolkit for law firms

There have been a growing number of limited companies following 2007 reforms, but partnership law firms and the billable hour remain prevalent. Alongside these is an abundance of small, local firms not traditionally conducive to building the technological expertise and multidisciplinary skills required to transform into a data-driven organisation and innovate. There is not sufficient capital to invest in innovation, career pathways for non-lawyers are limited, and every hour away from the client immediately affects profit. Meanwhile, developing legal technology to the required standard requires high fixed costs at the outset. For example, to train a machine-learning model, lawyers may first be required to label large volumes of data to train the algorithms.

These algorithms also require large amounts of data to work effectively, which is often highly sensitive, siloed across the sector and thus difficult to access. With the impact of something going wrong on clients and firms being so high, it is understandable that a culture of risk-aversion remains prevalent. RegulAItion has developed a privacy-preserving data access platform, AIRtech, that enables data holders to collaborate with technologists without the need for data to leave the organisation so that insights can be developed without exposing sensitive data. The platform also sets up the data governance agreements and approaches, smoothing the way to start collaboration around data and overcoming human concerns around agreed data usage.

Organisations across the sector need to increase their technological awareness, engage with innovation and collaborate. Oxford Brookes University and the University of Arts London, in collaboration with UK firms and regulators, have developed an AI-readiness toolkit to help professional services firms understand what the impact of AI will mean for their business and to support the development of strategies and future plans.

Multidisciplinary skills will be essential for the future. The University of Oxford has undertaken research into the knowledge and skills required for the future lawyer, implementing a master’s degree module in law and computer science to prepare future industry leaders. It is also piloting a LawTech Education Programme to provide continuing professional development for the next generation which has now trained over 500 legal professionals. More broadly, they have created knowledge.

Collaboration is key. Unsurprisingly, the most effective solutions arise when technology is designed with the involvement of lawyers. Only then will it address the reasonable concerns of the profession. Privacy, security and clear explainability of how the system works built into a user-centred design will enable trust and smooth the path to adoption. The AI for Services network brings together data and AI businesses and academics with professionals working in law, accountancy, insurance and finance, fostering collaboration and disseminating knowledge and best practise.     

Combining the best of technology with professional knowledge and expertise will deliver something that is greater than the sum of its parts. Concerns about risks are not something to be feared, but something to be addressed. And for those concerned about the impact of automation on their role: ultimately the future of lawyering lies not in technology itself. It belongs to the lawyers involved in making it and, principally, those best making use of it.  


Stephen Browning is interim director – AI and data economy, and the challenge director for next generation services – at UK Research and Innovation, a non-departmental public body of the UK government that directs research and innovation funding