Nearly a year on from the first national lockdown, many firms see digital transformation as a springboard for innovation. Even lawyers with no coding knowledge can create tech

Last year saw the growth of curated legal tech platforms leveraging the opportunity to help law firms and corporate legal departments identify the products that best fit their requirements and budgets.

Joanna Goodman

Joanna Goodman

These include Reynen Court, which represents several of the world’s biggest law firms; LexFusion, which curates best of breed products for firms and legal departments; PartnerVine, a portal for buying and selling legal products; and several vendor app stores, whereby legal tech’s big providers give their customers quick access to partner products and services, and other tools and applications that add on to or integrate with their platforms. The success of this approach is likely to be determined by interoperability between the systems and tools that make up law firms’ increasingly complex tech stack.  

Furthermore, as firms transition their core systems to the cloud, they find that it is easier to switch between products and services. Installing and updating online systems does not require the same commitment of time and cost as on-premise products.

Reimagining the future

The pandemic has shifted law firms’ tech priorities for 2021. While successful start-up incubators and breakaway law firm tech businesses were still going strong in 2020, law firms focused on setting up systems and users for reliable, secure remote working. This year, they are turning their attention back to innovation as a driver of competitive advantage.

Briefing’s annual Legal IT Landscapes survey asked law firm IT and business services leaders to name their top three technologies for improving work efficiency and firm competitiveness. The responses were predictable: ‘Where AI and automation once dominated, it’s now collaboration that comes out top (tying with AI and workflow as engines of efficiency). That’s perhaps not surprising when you consider that collaboration has been critical for firms pressured to perform in various ways while managing massively dispersed teams.’

These findings highlight a potential advantage for legal tech emerging from the pandemic: digital transformation and technology adoption have opened a window of opportunity for law firms to introduce new tools and systems to a more receptive user community. It is interesting, therefore, that the report’s ‘gateway to the future’ area of the efficiency/competitiveness grid, which identifies ‘technologies to watch’, shows low-code/no-code platforms with the top score for competitiveness, while automation is the high scorer for efficiency.

'It is not about lawyers becoming coders; it’s about encouraging curiosity and enabling people to experiment and create prototypes of their ideas'

Emma Sorrell, Burges Salmon

Almost a year on from the first national lockdown, many firms see digital transformation and tech adoption as a springboard for innovation. Burges Salmon in Bristol is one example. ‘Our Planning Ahead team is leading a Future of Work Re-imagination workstream to ensure we identify and deliver on the opportunities provided by this once-in-a-generation accelerated adoption of technology,’ says innovation manager Emma Sorrell. She adds that Re-imagination is focused on two perspectives: how lawyers work and how they deliver their services.

Social animals

Lockdown has renewed interest in social media platforms. Clubhouse, the invitation-only audio platform, has reportedly raised $1bn in funding. And LinkedIn has extended its activity beyond an online Rolodex/job site. Johnny Shearman, head of knowledge and legal services at Signature Litigation and founder at content marketing and strategy consultancy JD Legal, offers four tips for getting value from LinkedIn:

  • Turn up. Post regularly, not just when you have something to announce. Choose a topic that sparks debate but isn’t polarising.
  • Engage. If you read a post that interests you, jump into the comments and have your say.
  • Read comments and reply. ‘If you were attending an event, you wouldn’t just throw your business card on the table and run away,’ says Shearman. ‘You’d network and join conversations to connect with others. Apply the same approach on LinkedIn.’
  • Follow up! I connected with Johnny Shearman for this piece after he was featured on the Legally Speaking podcast. 

Prefab apps

Low-code/no-code platforms allow lawyers without any knowledge of coding to get involved in creating innovative tech solutions.

Sorrell refers to the perennial debate about whether lawyers need to code: ‘For me, it is not about lawyers becoming coders; it’s about encouraging curiosity and enabling people to experiment and create prototypes of their ideas. This is where no-code automation comes in – enabling lawyers to explore building their own applications without writing code. These platforms can also foster collaboration between lawyers and technologists by putting the technology in the hands of the subject matter experts.’

At this year’s B-Innovative Week, the firm’s annual (internal) innovation and technology event (which for the first time was run virtually), Burges Salmon collaborated with no-code business process automation tool Autto. ‘We ran a challenge for our trainees to work in teams and deliver a prototype workflow or client-facing app,’ explains Sorrell. ‘It was a great success, generating a variety of ideas and encouraging our future lawyers to think creatively about innovative ways of delivering legal services. It showed the power of engaging with technology and how subject matter experts can lay the foundations to create a minimum viable product that we can take forward.’  

Ian Broom is CEO and co-founder of Fliplet, which has been working with law firms to develop apps that enable people to return to their offices (either full-time or occasionally) in a Covid-safe way. ‘For example, if there is a Covid case in one of a firm’s regional offices, the app will notify everyone who works in that location that the office will be closed until it is safe to return. Other capabilities include QR scanning so that people can check in and out.’ The app fulfils both employers’ and employees’ responsibilities and applies an appropriate level of communication to different user groups.

Fliplet builds templates for app creation with a drag-and-drop interface that includes common features such as notifications based on user profiles. This works well for internal apps, but when it comes to apps that deliver legal advice and guidance firms need to go beyond a standard template to stand out from the crowd. The Fliplet team works with law firms to develop bespoke client-facing apps that are designed for specific scenarios and users. Broom highlights their work on branded law firm apps that help law firm clients manage dawn raids as a typical use case.

However, the fact that a platform does not require coding does necessarily make it easy or straightforward to develop and roll out an app to the firm and/or its clients. ‘It is important to define the development process and manage different levels of dependency,’ explains Broom. ‘While the return to the office app is built on a straightforward template, many firms want to develop their own bespoke tools, so we added low-code capability supported by user guidance, as well as advanced developer tools for power users and CIOs who may want to add additional features around systems integration and data security.’

Rick Seabrook, founder of digital transformation consultancy Panoram, and former UK managing director at no-code platform Neota Logic, agrees. ‘No-code doesn’t mean that the average person can pick up the tools and use them. No-code platforms are useful for prototyping ideas, quickly creating proofs of concept and developing intuitive apps that solve single-issue problems; but as soon as you want to build integration with other systems as part of a broader workflow, or a tool that clients will pay to license, their capability is quickly exhausted,’ he explains.

Data is a key consideration. ‘Standalone apps create data silos. If the app collects client data, you need to consider how that data is secured, where it is stored and how it is integrated into the firm’s practice management tools,’ adds Seabrook.

Sorrell’s experience reflects this. ‘At Burges Salmon, we use a low-code automation platform to develop and deploy secure client-facing solutions, and we are looking into adding no-code platforms to our toolkit,’ she says. ‘But whether the platform is low-code or no-code, we need to adhere to the terms of our procurement process, for example in relation to securing client data.’

While low-code/no-code capability is great for resolving immediate issues and facilitating innovation, what are the implications for the rest of the firm’s IT stack? Seabrook believes that these seemingly straightforward prefab solutions will either create multiple silos or require additional layers of technology to maintain interoperability. ‘It is quick and relatively easy to build a standalone product or a proof of concept,’ he says. ‘However, issues arise when you want to scale it up or connect it to other systems. There comes a point at which you need to decide whether it is worth reworking it from the bottom up to include links to other systems, security and data protection.’  

Notwithstanding issues around legacy and interoperability, wholesale cloud adoption gives law firms the ability to switch around their technology more easily and at lower cost, tailor their tech stack precisely to their operational requirements and adapt quickly to new developments and priorities. No-code/low-code platforms give lawyers the tools to quickly progress innovation ideas into practice, even if additional development is required later. So maybe 2021 is the year when agility – another longstanding legal tech buzzword – becomes reality.