The interface of law and technology and its impact on the delivery of legal services globally has grown imperceptibly yet consistently over the last decade. Technology is facilitating cross-border legal services, helping firms reach a larger client base and providing consumers with a broader market of legal specialists and tools with which to access legal advice and information. Internally, law firms are slowly realising the benefits of technological tools to manage their business processes and deliver better value to their clients.
Through our work in various African jurisdictions, we have met and talked with lawyers and tech companies who are keen to develop and use technology and legal tech, in particular. Many tech entrepreneurs are also keen to build links across the continent that will facilitate connections with law firms and investors and collaborations with counterparts in Africa and beyond.
Already, there are flourishing tech collaborations within the financial, health and education sectors, but very little is known or understood about the legal sector and its needs. From the mobile money transfer app, M-Pesa – famously pioneered over a decade ago in Kenya and which has now been replicated globally – tech innovation has grown in other sectors, such as financial services, education, farming and healthcare – including the makings of a ‘robotics revolution’ to address infrastructure challenges. These innovations have also stimulated entrepreneurial ventures with over 300 tech incubators and hubs across the continent.
Most of the legal ‘techpreneurs’ in Africa are currently focusing on access to justice, access to law or SME-support type innovations – this is particularly the case in East and Southern Africa. These areas are likely to continue to influence most of the legal tech on offer, reflecting the (real or perceived) view that this is the biggest need in the African legal sector and, critically, where there is greatest availability of funding from multilateral and private donors.
There remain, however, untapped needs on the commercial side of the legal services sector and opportunities for tech innovators to provide solutions for African law firms and institutions to address various needs.
As clients demand better value, firms can use technology to deliver elements of their business strategy that in turn deliver greater value and reduced costs to their clients. Smaller firms can compete with larger, better resourced firms by automating tasks that were previously time- and resource-consuming. For institutions and regulators, technology can enable better communication and facilitate the provision of services to members including continuing education and management tools that lead to a stronger sector. The African tech sector is well placed to provide these services and tools for the legal sector.
Of course, technology can also bring risk to those operating within the legal services environment. Issues of cybersecurity and data management in an increasingly inter-connected world are starting to have an impact on African businesses and their advisers with few obvious local solutions in sight. Law firms are increasingly the target of cyberattacks – the much-publicised Panama Papers and Paradise Papers being the best-known cases in the last five years.
More than 11 million confidential documents were leaked to the public in 2015 following the cyberattack on the Panamanian law firm, Mossak Fonseca, detailing financial and other details held by the firm on behalf of its high-net worth and government clients from around the world. In 2017, the Bermudan law firm, Appleby, and other financial services companies were hacked and a total of 13.4 million confidential documents detailing the off-shore investments of individuals and companies were leaked into the public domain.
The rise of cybercrime and targeting of law firms as the repositories of client information has galvanised the tech sector to develop tools that firms can use to implement their internal policies and systems to protect themselves and their clients and mitigate against the more malign side-effects of operating in a technology-driven world. The African legal profession, with its requirement to observe strict client confidentiality, urgently needs the services of the tech sector to address their security needs before similar breaches occur with devastating results.
Technology can give African law firms the means to be innovative and creative in the design and delivery of services, providing the tools to reach and engage with their clients in a way that was not conceivable even five years ago. Of course, innovation is not necessarily about the use of technology but, for those firms that are already taking a client-centric approach to their services, technology is bound to be an enabler of many of their objectives.
Despite African law firms being just as conservative as their bigger Western counterparts, there is a distinct entrepreneurial spirit fed by the need to find a competitive advantage and a young population that is much more tech savvy. Most firms are small and provide traditional legal services so the technology discussion, if at all, is still at the email and internal processes stage and only very slowly beginning to move into dispute resolution support.
The fourth industrial revolution is making itself felt across the continent through the rise of technological innovation. The disruption of sectors and industries through the application of new technologies presents opportunities for the legal profession due to a growing need for new regulatory and legislative frameworks within which new services can operate and thrive. Data protection and privacy legislation, for example, is one area of great need across the continent. Lawyers have the skills and expertise to shape and influence public policy and regulation and create a facilitating environment for tech entrepreneurism to flourish.
In response to these challenges and opportunities, Hook Tangaza created the Africa Legal Tech Network (ALT Network) in 2018. ALT Network is an online platform and community which aims to stimulate creativity in legal technology entrepreneurship, connect lawyers with innovative methods and solutions, and facilitate an enabling policy and regulatory environment across the continent. By bringing the tech and legal sectors together, ALT Network aspires to enable law firms to better protect themselves and clients, to provide services more efficiently and innovate across their service sectors by using technology.
 A robotics revolution – www.weforum.org/agenda/2015/03/10-technology-trends-to-watch-in-africa-in-2015.