Upskilling the legal sector

By Clive Coleman

Clive Coleman

Clive Coleman former BBC Legal Correspondent

Clive Coleman, former BBC Legal Correspondent, discusses the challenges in bringing tech to the legal sector, focusing on what skills are needed and solutions firms are trialling.

Love and marriage’ so the song says, ‘go together like a horse and carriage’. Can the same be said about lawyers and technology? Not really. There had been a relatively slow, cautious courtship between the parties. Ingrained, paper-based systems and ways of working, a conservative profession and a lack of understanding of tech are some of the factors blamed for the legal sector having been slower than most to embrace technological change. Then came the pandemic. ‘Covid turbo charged the use of technology, because in the first lockdown every solicitor’s office had to become a virtual law firm overnight’, says Sally Holdway of Teal Legal, a company specialising in delivering innovations in the way legal services are delivered. Research published in July 2021 and carried out for the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) by the University of Oxford bears this out. Nearly all law firms were using technology to deliver legal services. Research showed 88 per cent used video conferencing and 66 per cent stored data in the cloud. However, those figures drop considerably when it comes to the use of specific technology such as automated documents, interactive websites and artificial intelligence. Only 37 per cent of firms were using such tech, with 24 per cent saying that they were planning to use it in future. And there was a huge disparity between different types of firms. The research found that just three per cent of lawtech funding flowed into ‘people law’ firms (those servicing the public and small businesses), as against 97 per cent that flowed into ‘big law’ firms (those servicing large commercial clients).

The challenge – ‘people law’ firms

The research found the barriers to ‘people law’ firms adopting legal tech included a lack of capital, regulatory barriers and uncertainty, and a lack of staff expertise. Firms were uncertain about the benefits of innovation and often did not see it as a strategic priority. So, how should firms go about the task of improving their technology so their practice functions more efficiently and serves their clients more effectively? Well, they do not need fancy bespoke systems according to Edward Friend, a technology-adept solicitor who established Carreg Law in Llandelio, Wales in 2014. ‘I looked at what I had on my mobile phone to see what I liked and was simple to use, and I replicated that in the business - I wanted to be anywhere in the world and still run the practice as if I was in the office.’ Friend says everything had to be cloud-based. Cutting out physical servers, which need ongoing support from an IT professional, are more costly, slower, and susceptible to flood, fire or theft. ‘Cloud-based systems allow everything from Office 365, phone systems, Quickbooks, Gmail, Zoom and Teams, to be integrated’, he says. Carreg Law’s staff require minimal training to create a contact, a matter, track all expenses, billable hours, unpaid bills, diary entries and tasks within the cloud-based system. Its system is agnostic as to devices, be they Macs, PCs, laptops, tablets or phones. All very well I hear you asking, but what about security? ‘It is as secure as internet banking’, says Friend, ‘it creates encryption between our devices and the servers that our cloud-based provider uses. We use fingerprint identification for devices. And data storage is portable. I can move data from Dropbox to Google or Microsoft.’ Friend has firmly put his faith in the big beasts of Silicon Valley. ‘Why use a small firm that makes legal software when you can rely on Microsoft and Apple who have refined a filing system over forty years and have the search capability that they have?’ he says.

‘Big law’ firms – upskilling or buying in tech expertise?

‘An excellent tech engineer will be working in tech 100 per cent of their time. A lawyer who does it occasionally will not do it well, will forget their skills and will not be able to fix things that go wrong. You can show lawyers how tech works but their job is to be lawyers’, says Tara Waters from City firm Ashurst. Accordingly, it has created a career pathway for tech specialists, Ashurst Advance, to run alongside that of its lawyers. ‘Clients expect time and cost efficiencies to be passed on to them. We need specialists to make sure that happens with things like automated workflow systems. Our technologists are highly skilled employees of the company whose skill set is as important as that of the lawyers’, she says. While employees must be lawyers to become a partner at Ashurst, its tech specialists could in due course become a ‘director’, a role that can be equivalent to partner, emphasising the value the firm places on them.

‘Covid turbo charged the use of technology, because in the first lockdown every solicitor’s office had to become a virtual law firm overnight.'

Tara Waters Partner, Head of Ashurst Advance Digital

‘An excellent tech engineer will be working in tech 100 per cent of their time. A lawyer who does it occasionally will not do it well, will forget their skills and will not be able to fix things that go wrong. You can show lawyers how tech works but their job is to be lawyers’
'We are sometimes asked for candidates who are ‘tech savvy’, but rarely for specific knowledge of tech solutions.'

I liked it so much, I bought the company

In 2016 Peter Lee co-founded Wavelength, which he says was the first regulated legal engineering business in the world. Its aim was to bring tech and data thinking and design to the practice of law. One of its clients was Simmons & Simmons, who liked the services they were getting so much that they bought Wavelength in 2019, creating Simmons Wavelength. Its core services are making legal teams and processes more efficient (legal operations), accelerating legal tasks using supervised machine learning tools and data science techniques (legal data engineering), and presenting information and legal work in new or more consumable ways (legal design). Peter Lee gives an example of the reach, power and efficacy of technology applied to legal practice. ‘The firm was involved in a big construction arbitration. Our team realised the other side’s voluminous witness statements had similarities. We built an algorithm overnight that allowed us to compare every paragraph of every witness statement. We identified all the sentences that were 90 per cent to 100 per cent the same. We put the data into a written form our barrister could use the next day and were able to surprise the other side and discredit some of their arguments. We won the arbitration’. Ashurst and Simmons and Simmons’ approach may explain why relatively few law firms are recruiting lawyers with tech skills and qualifications. ‘We never get asked for lawyers with technical skills. There is no real expectation for technical qualifications for training contracts. We are sometimes asked for candidates who are ‘tech savvy’, but rarely for specific knowledge of tech solutions’, says Mary Bonsor, CEO of Flex Legal, the online platform that connects law firms to on demand lawyers and paralegals. Things are changing. Legal Tech modules are now making their way into Law degree courses at universities, and they are proving popular among students – a new generation of natives in the land of technology, where older lawyers still feel like visitors. ‘After the initial turbo charge from Covid, firms are looking to adopt tech – beyond electronic signing of documents and Zoom calls – in a more strategic way’, says Sally Holdway of Teal Legal. Fears, including those about client confidentiality, tech and professional indemnity insurance requirements, and data held in a cloud being compliant with data protection law and SRA regulation, will have to be tackled. The regulator stands ready and knows it has to work with and support firms.

Changing expectations

Law firm clients are used to apps in online banking and many other service industries. They like the transparency of using tech, being able to log on and see the last activity in their matter, rather than waiting for a letter. Corporate clients expect law firms to interact with the accounting and other software they use in their business. Whether firms build systems from everyday tech platforms, recruit tech experts or young lawyers with tech qualifications, upskill their own staff or buy tech companies, there is only one direction of travel. The tech future is hurtling ahead and lawyers need to be fully on board.

'We never get asked for lawyers with technical skills. There is no real expectation for technical qualifications for training contracts,'

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