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A different view on law firms and technology

A different view on law firms and technology

Max Alexander-Jones

07/01/2022

Reading time: four minutes

While I have previously talked about technology, today I will consider whether technology is actually detrimental to law firms. It is a given that new tech poses a big challenge to traditionally conservative law firms. The implementation of tech into the legal profession has had an obvious positive impact on firms – for example, by speeding up international networking to allow law firms to form stronger relationships with clients. However, it is important to take a step back and remember that law firms are first and foremost businesses.

Today’s companies need lawyers not only to resolve any legal issues they may face, but also to support any business endeavours they wish to embark on. In big City law firms, you are not only legal advisers, but also business advisers. It is therefore no wonder why law firms care so much about their employees possessing commercial awareness. Nevertheless, the modern world requires lawyers to stay current and, along with a standard deep level of legal knowledge, have additional skills in the area of technology. Without such efforts, a law firm risks falling behind in many ways.

From the first day of a law degree, you are taught about the idea of stare decisis. This is the idea that lower courts must follow the precedent of higher courts. Given this principle, it should come as no surprise when I tell you that the legal profession is struggling to adopt technology. One thing you will find is that lawyers and time get along very well, because, well… time is money. Although the industry has and will continue to become more enjoyable and inclusive for young prospective lawyers due to more mundane tasks like due diligence and contract reading being completed by new legal tech, it is not making law firms any money when working on it. A widespread view in the industry is that any time spent on non-billable work is a waste of time, subsequently making law firms still reluctant to develop tech into their business models. Time spent on developing technology needed to keep up with clients’ and employees’ expectations will take time and manpower, all of which does not bring any money in for firms.

Even more food for thought are the looming questions that derive from such an interpretation of legal tech: can lawyers really bill clients for work they themselves have not done? I am sure that that will become a legal issue that the Supreme Court of England and Wales will hear one day. However, let’s say they could bill this type of work for the sake of my point; surely tasks being done by tech and lawyers simultaneously is inevitably going to resolve client issues quicker, meaning less income. While this is a cynical view to take of professional legal services, a business does have to stay afloat.

Tech also brings an issue of cost. Investing in new technology is always unpopular due to the investment’s return not being immediately apparent. Some forms of technology are expensive, and it doesn’t help that legal tech is, according to some estimates, 15 years behind that of other forms of technology we currently use. The legal tech issue is clearly a marathon and not a sprint, something that consequently may be enough to deter law firms. I think this is perhaps slightly overplayed as an excuse though. Renting office space, for example, doesn’t result in an immediate injection of capital for a business, but is still seen as a necessary cost of doing business. Technology should be viewed in the same way.

At the same time, however, it is understandable that law firms may be concerned with client satisfaction. If we take the analogy of the second paragraph and agree that law firms can charge clients for tech doing some of the firm’s work, in an industry where clients are billed a certain figure every six-minute increment, technology needs to be reliable. Suppose the tech used creates a time lag for any work done by the firm. In that case, this could amount to massive losses for a client and might result in tarnished reputations and clients even leaving the firm. Law firms must also be careful with the increasing threat of cybersecurity, which they have to be sensitive to, given the notorious reputation of legal privilege.

To conclude, it is becoming easier to come to terms with the fact that firms are being forced into adopting this new tech-savvy world. No prospective client wants to employ a firm that does not know how to use tech, nor does a prospective employee want to work for a firm that appears to be outdated and obsolete. The development of technology is obviously a good thing but firms are being too heavily targeted for their current standard of legal tech without people taking a moment to take in the entire challenge they face.