Through my work at the Law Society and as managing director of a law firm that has a number of other law firm clients, I speak to a wide range of partners from firms both small and large. When it comes to issues around IT and technology, they tend to fall into two broad types. First, those who have not invested in IT or technology to any great extent through either a lack of resources or culture; and second, those who have committed and spent time and money but are unhappy with the results.
So how should law firms approach investing in IT and wider technology as a whole? Ideally, in the same manner as we approach other aspects of our profession, by evaluating the evidence and putting in the strategy and tools to meet the objectives.
Sometimes the aim can be more efficient working for staff and fee-earners. I recently heard of a firm where each member of staff received a new £350 laptop upon joining, but where chronic system and network issues made staff universally frustrated by the production of emails and documents taking twice as long as it should. The answer was that the laptops were too low a specification. Now they purchase a £600 laptop and everything works quickly and efficiently; the small increase in cost more than offset by the massive increase in productivity.
Conversely, James Caan of Dragons’ Den fame found that the biggest challenge he faced upon taking a stake in an alternative business structure was persuading the other partners of the need to make a multi-million-pound investment in integrated IT. Yet upon agreeing on and implementing a strategy, turnover trebled inside a few years.
Thanks to Law Society lobbying, the Investigatory Powers Act now includes explicit reference to legal professional privilege and safeguards are in place to protect the privacy of communications between solicitors and clients
Technology for the delivery of legal services is clearly the future for the profession. However, we are not talking about websites or email here. Indeed email, due to its lack of security and the daily deluge of spam and bulk marketing traffic, is rapidly losing its appeal as a viable service delivery tool. It will soon head the same way as the Betamax video.
We are talking about using technology to liberate fee-earners from the office and the commute, allowing for remote working and increased productivity in a cyber-secure environment to facilitate the delivery of legal services to clients who increasingly expect more from their solicitor.
In a world where you can order a car via an app on your smartphone and instantly find out where the car is, how long it will take to reach you, what make, model and colour the car is, along with the name of the driver and their details so you can call with instructions or directions, people will no longer tolerate waiting for a traditional taxi that was booked an hour ago.
In the same way, clients are looking to receive legal services in a different way and may not want to receive letters, phone calls and emails. They may want different ways of legal service delivery to be offered to them.
Consequently, firms need to have a strategy in place to provide ongoing investment in IT and technology across all their offices and to all staff, so that the right services can be delivered in a way that satisfies increasingly demanding clients. It also means fitting in with what the client feels most comfortable with, so that those who want a hard copy letter still receive it, while those who prefer a secure notification to their mobile device are also catered for.
The Law Society is working to provide support and clarity in the field of technology and the provision of legal services. It scored a significant victory last year when lobbying the government over the Investigatory Powers Act. The first draft iterations of the legislation would have allowed for the unfettered interception of communications between
solicitors and their clients by the security services. Thanks to Law Society lobbying, the act now includes explicit reference to legal professional privilege, and safeguards are in place to protect the privacy of communications between solicitors and clients.
Compared with the text in the draft bill in 2015, this is extremely significant progress and shows just what can be achieved from focused, targeted lobbying by the Society on behalf of the profession and our clients. No other membership organisation, such as the CBI or the British Chambers of Commerce, could have achieved such a result.
The challenges will continue in the coming parliament as powers are repatriated from Brussels and the UK becomes responsible for its own laws and regulatory systems upon leaving the EU. The government has already indicated that data protection is one area that will be prioritised for new legislation. While the European General Data Protection Regulation will pass into UK law under the Great Repeal Bill, it will then be possible to decide how the UK wishes to regulate the retention, storage and transmission of data in future for those businesses that do not export goods or services to the EU or do not store any personal data relating to EU citizens.
The Society will have to maintain a watching brief as the situation in Westminster crystallises. But it will need to ensure that there are adequate safeguards in place under any new system of data protection regulation to maintain client confidentiality and security, while business can also be undertaken online in as efficient and cyber-secure a manner as possible – in a way that is consistent both with best practice and with standards in other jurisdictions where our clients may be doing business.
Only through taking these steps can we ensure that England and Wales remains the global jurisdiction of choice.
Peter Wright is chair of the Law Society’s Technology and Law Reference Group