In previous articles on technology and the legal sector (here and here), we outlined some of the ways in which law firms have adopted tech to deliver greater innovation, increased efficiency, and to provide further value to their clients. Although many firms embraced, and certainly publicised, their implementation of cutting-edge technology – ranging from Robotic Process Automation and Chatbots to Smart Contracts and Blockchain, this did not necessarily culminate in a major transformation of legal service provision in toto. For most firms, it seemed, technology was only a supplement to the normal ways of doing business.
What should we expect as we move forward into 2020?
Firms who have reconfigured their services around technology will increasingly enjoy a competitive advantage over firms who have not. Since the 2008 recession, clients have insisted upon a more cost-efficient and responsive service. Law firms are likely to meet this demand via an enthusiastic adoption of tech, with Silicon Valley-like accelerator labs acting as hosting grounds for prototypes and iterative development. Innovation will become increasingly necessary as new entrants to the market (particularly firms structured as Alternative Business Structures, and the “Big Four” accountancy firms) are likely to be laser-focused on the client experience.
Then again it is arguable that the broader and deeper benefits of technology can only be reaped through a more holistic approach. Firms should not be fixated on specific types of tech (such as that which is directed at contract review or document automation); instead, technology should form a central component of the legal services package which, ultimately, contributes to the future of the client’s business. Technology needs to enable firms to be pro-active in rooting out possible problems for the client, rather than assisting firms in being reactive to them only once they have emerged. Technology can enable a shift from a firm-client nexus founded on a series of transactions to a closer relationship structured through on-going support, advice, and consultation. For this approach to work data must be available. With data in-house teams can justify their budget and a client can better appreciate the wider benefits of legal services in their balance sheet.
There are several significant issues impeding this shift. Tech providers must be able to access data in order to develop viable products. This is especially true for the development of AI and machine-learning technologies. Law firms are naturally aware of the questions this poses for security and confidentiality. Furthermore, there is a significant skills-gap in the legal sector, which is only just being addressed and mainly only by the largest players in the industry. This latter point is starting to be met by education providers training graduates to be more familiar with computer science – but the expansion of legal education is only in the embryonic stage.
These issues are likely to persist for some time yet, but the means to side-step them may be at hand through a renewed concentration on two complementary ideas: design and process.
Design thinking involves clarifying the problem at hand, creatively reframing the problem into a soluble state, and thinking through various solutions to it. The method should ensure that the tech produced is designed in reference to a recognised issue and thus avoid being either overengineered or irrelevant. Sometimes there is no need to reinvent the wheel. Taking a process-informed perspective means that we jettison the presumption that all parts of the legal function are too unique to be compartmentalised, delegated, or automated. The legal function can be decomposed into discrete steps within a larger process. Once this is done, an end-to-end solution can be formulated, with anodyne tasks redistributed to other parts of the business or automated with the deployment of technology. In many senses this is merely an evolution of the on-shoring and off-shoring trend of the last decade.
Concentrating on design and process may not seem radical, but it could help mollify some of restrictions on data access and the deficit in technical knowledge highlighted above. It’s also a lot cheaper. Sometimes it makes far more sense to make better use of existing technology than to purchase the most advanced AI – whether this involves digging out what the IT department already has, or appreciating the potential of everyday software like Microsoft Excel(!).
In 2020, we may see these tendencies converging such that the most successful technologies employed in the legal sector will be seamless, end-to-end, pro-active rather than reactive, and offer interoperability with other technologies. The future is likely to involve the creation of a legal platform (like Salesforce) where new technological innovations can be seamlessly incorporated into the legal ecosystem.