Solicitors agree that legal business is brimming with innovators – but most are content for others to go first before deploying new technology.

Yet as the 'pyramid law firm of the past' recedes into history, practitioners who fail to embrace cutting-edge developments such as big data, the ‘internet of things’ and data analytics will not be best-placed to exploit rapidly evolving markets.

These are among the conclusions to be drawn from a landmark report from The Law Society published today, 'Capturing Technological Innovation in Legal Services'. The 116-page study portrays a sector which is already engaging with new technologies - advanced automation, machine learning and artificial intelligence - that 'will allow machines to augment the skills of solicitors in ways that were unimaginable even a decade ago’. 

It also 'lays bare the quintessential challenge of innovating in the legal sector’, declares president Robert Bourns in a foreword. While three-quarters of firms surveyed agreed that 'innovation is critical to exploit opportunities and differentiate my firm’, over half said they were more likely to wait for others to pioneer new technologies.

The Law Society wants to help solicitors through these changes by acting as an 'innovation nexus', and its report considers how the sector may evolve, building on examples in three areas:

  • Product innovation, where technology opens new areas of legal work, or responds to new ways of delivering advice to clients to suit their changing needs and expectations;
  • Process innovation, where technology changes the way legal services are carried out, such as utilising machine learning and automation to allow technology to boost solicitors’ productivity; and
  • Strategy innovation, which allows firms to be more transparent with their pricing and more flexible with resourcing.

In 2015 alone more than 600 legal tech startups were creating technologies, business models and platforms aiming to improve law firm operations, client acquisition, legal research and access to justice. But the landscape is fragmented – many offer solutions to very specific problems, reflecting a trend among developers to focus on creating apps for specific functions. 

Providers and legal advice agencies are already taking advantage of mobile technology to facilitate access and provide information about advice options. In the business to consumer market, law firms and tech startups are finding ways to enable access to justice in areas becoming less financially feasible for many firms.

Over the next 10 years, the report predicts, business applications will go well beyond workflow automation to incorporate support for the human cogniitive processes. The ‘augmented’ workforce will include a new generation of smart technologies, virtual assistants, algorithms, automated processes and distributed devices.

And what of solicitors’ jobs amid the march of the robots? The report quotes a Gartner forecast that, by 2025, around one-third of current jobs will be automated, adding: ‘As more technology vendors and start-ups release solutions to automate standard and repetitive processes, firms should ask what transactions they perform regularly and look to automate those. This process cuts costs and frees up staff to perform technical and advisory roles, adding value to the client.’

The director of legal services innovation at an unnamed top-50 firm puts this into everyday context: ‘I see robots as a massive everyday opportunity for the firm to do what our lawyers already value, which is to think and to have space to think. We don’t need third-year associates to be doing verification, it shouldn’t be happening, and a lot of them are Cambridge double-firsts, they don’t want to be doing that.’

Bourns added: ‘Taking full advantage of the opportunities that new technology offers will mean adapting the way we work and embracing change.  We have a strong tradition of innovating to meet our clients’ needs. Technology offers lots of opportunities to provide services in new ways and to continue to exceed our clients’ expectations.

‘There are also opportunities to work ever more collaboratively in partnership with technology companies or universities. Even if it means doing things that are new, the solicitor profession is up for the challenge.’

Today’s report follows the Law Society’s research on the Future of Legal Services, published last year, which looked at a range of external factors driving change in the legal sector over the coming five years.

‘The report shows us a very different profession, one with energy and ideas, ready to promote a revolution in how we deliver legal services,’ Bourns concludes. ‘It is an exciting time to be a solicitor.’

Capturing Technological Innovation in Legal Services will be available on the Law Society's website following its launch later this morning.