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Lawyers need to flex to take advantage of the benefits of technology

By Jayne Durden, SVP Strategy, Law Firms — September 17, 2019

Technological advancement is accelerating at a rapid pace. Inventions that one would typically find in a Hollywood movie - self-driving cars, artificial intelligence and even mind-reading technology – are now ubiquitous and, critically, the legal sector is not immune.

Transforming the business of law

It’s no secret that many law firms have historically been conservative when it comes to tech adoption. This is understandable in part. Securing consensus among partners and other stakeholders to invest in and embed changes can be a challenge. Justifying the cost of acquiring and installing technology and understanding how quickly ROI can be realized is often also a concern. However, the cost and effort of transforming has to be balanced with the risk of standing still and being left behind.

However, the technological revolution is such that law firms now find themselves in a position where the choice is no longer whether to digitize, but when and how quickly.

The beneficial outcomes are numerous – ranging from higher levels of productivity, better client service, talent retention and, fundamentally, increased profitability. In addition, digital transformation can and should be seen as a key element of a law firm’s risk management strategy. New competing threats are emerging to offer alternatives to both clients and legal talent, and these are frequently powered by technological solutions.

Simply put, digital transformation of legal services is [just] organisational change – with technological solutions the enabler for law firms to operate, compete, and succeed in today’s competitive market.

Misplaced mistrust – the case of Automation and AI

Clearly, though, there are cultural factors within legal services which need to be addressed and misconceptions that must be quashed, if law firms are to seize the opportunity that technology offers.

Lawyers have to balance their professional obligations, in particular their ‘fiduciary duty’ to supervise staff and processes within their firm. There is a reticence to move away from systems and processes over which a ‘person’ has direct control. This position is, again, understandable, given the level of confidential, sensitive information firms and their partners hold, and the risks associated with handling valuable rights – particularly in the Intellectual Property business.

But whether ‘humans’ are in fact the safest option is debateable. Indeed, the American Bar Association (ABA) reports that professional liability studies show nearly 30 per cent of professional indemnity claims stem from human data entry and administrative errors. AI and automation could significantly reduce the propensity for errors and reduce the liability of lawyers and their firms.

The ABA is fully aware of this fact and voted to approve Resolution 112, which addresses the emerging ethical and legal issues related to the use of AI. According to the ABA, law firms and courts need to adopt best practices when dealing with this technology. This is all the more vital given that we are on the brink of an AI revolution, with many firms already using AI tools to help research and edit contracts or to mine for precedents and case information, for example.

IP: ripe for a digital revolution

Few areas of law, though, will undergo as much of a transformation as intellectual property law – fuelled by Artificial Intelligence, Big Data and Blockchain – as we found in our #NewIP report (read more here).

Whereas previously, IP was seen as a defensive tool – to define and ring fence rights with a view to asserting those rights through litigation against infringers – there is now a move to IP being perceived as a commercial asset to be deployed and monetised strategically, through negotiation and via licensing. This is being enabled by the smart application of technology. Big Data for example, gathering IP intelligence from across jurisdictions and AI analytics providing insight into the commercial opportunities to file or license.

Law firms will need to be mindful of this shift, both adapting their client offering to meet this evolving demand and incorporating the technological capacity to strategically advise clients on the value-creating potential of their IP and to do so efficiently, within sensitive client budgets.

“Upcoming young lawyers are tech savvy and expect that a modern legal practice that they want to commit their career to will be run with appropriate technology and processes"

Technology and talent

But technological transformation has a further, critical benefit – that is empowering lawyers to be strategic advisers, instead of administrators. It can therefore be key to firms’ ability to attract and retain the best talent, with the core value of a legal business remaining its intellectual capital - its people and relationships.

Upcoming young lawyers are tech savvy and expect that a modern legal practice that they want to commit their career to will be run with appropriate technology and processes. This includes applying technology to remove repetitive, low value (and low intellect) tasks, enabling better working arrangements, and integrating higher up the food chain with clients. If these kinds of opportunities are not forthcoming then the risk is that legal talent will find a home elsewhere – inside start-ups, digital enterprises or even as sole practitioners.

Fundamentally, the opportunity is there for law firms to arm themselves with better information, data and technological tools in order to capitalize on their value and form better partnerships with their clients and stakeholders. These tools will shepherd the traditional law firm into the next era of truly strategic business advisory firms, because that is what the best law firms are destined to become.