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Commercial Question

Tech and the future of legal services: implementing change

updated on 09 November 2021

Question

How will technology change the legal sector?

Answer

The legal tech industry continues to develop at a rapid pace. Even before the pandemic, it was taking huge steps forward, but new and agile methods of working have exacerbated the need for innovative solutions for both law firms and their clients. 

In such a quickly shifting sphere, it is important to take stock of the state of the industry, what continuing pandemic-driven effects we have seen and what this means for firms and clients alike.

Below are some thoughts on how technology will continue to affect legal services.

1.    Which technologies have gained wider adoption as a result of the pandemic?

E-signing has gained significant traction during the pandemic, allowing signings and completions to proceed without significant disruption. While there remain certain legal and practical limitations around the use of e-signing, these are reducing. Having proved its value, it’s likely that e-signing will continue to be relied upon significantly post-lockdown. Zoom and Microsoft Teams have established themselves as a mainstay.

Clients have also become increasingly interested in collaborative technologies, particularly as repeated lockdowns have dispersed teams and made accessing an organisation’s ‘institutional memory’ more challenging. Solutions that offer online document storage, exchange and access, which support workflows, task allocation and management have really come to the fore. 

More generally, use of AI systems continues to increase, particularly for document review in the context of legal and regulatory change. When combined with data analytics and data visualisation, this technology can bring significant efficiency to projects involving volume and complexity. Use of expert and logic-based systems is also increasing, particularly to support clients in understanding their compliance obligations under increasingly complex legal and regulatory regimes – for example environmental, social and governance (ESG) – to undertake risk analysis, to monitor ongoing compliance and to support audit.           

2.    What has held back technology adoption?

Lack of understanding is one of the biggest inhibitors. Hype can create a misleading impression of what technologies offer and it can be difficult to understand exactly how technologies can be applied in a practical sense to the services lawyers provide to clients. Technology is a terrific enabler, but isn’t a replacement for a lawyer’s expertise, experience and judgement.

Lack of time holds things back too. Lawyers are often time-poor, they’re busy and often work under significant time pressure. While technology can often help in these situations, it is the worst possible time to be trying something out for the first time. Tremendous strides forward have been made in recent years and appetite for exploration has increased significantly, but firms must invest in continuous education and more widespread adoption.

3.    What considerations should clients and firm have when looking at future tech providers?

Information security is a paramount concern for clients so ensuring that technologies have robust information security protections, and best-in-class industry certifications, is a top priority. Given that the technologies being used are increasingly cloud-based, ensuring a clear understanding of where the data is held (ie, where the tech provider’s servers are located) is important.

Connectivity and interoperability are increasingly important too. Ensuring that the technologies being used can connect with each other well and exchange data seamlessly is critical, so we should be asking questions around current and planned integrations. That goes for client systems as well as firms’ own internal systems.

4.    What impact will technology have on the lawyer’s skillset?

While lawyers certainly don’t need to learn how to ‘code’, tech skills and general digital literacy will become more and more important to lawyers. This will need to be factored into legal education at the outset, as well as continuous professional development. 

Hybrid roles, which combine legal and technological expertise, will become much more commonplace within the profession, allowing firms to drive forward tech-enablement and offer clients a range of services that go beyond traditional legal practice. 

5.    Where will we be in five years?

Automation of drafting and processes will become commonplace, guiding lawyers through workflows and improving visibility. Online delivery of advice and documents, online document collaboration and negotiation will also become more firmly embedded, giving clients greater flexibility and more transparency. Technology will put knowledge and information at lawyers’ and clients’ fingertips.

AI will be used much more frequently, likely becoming the default starting point for tasks like document review. More sophisticated uses of those technologies, for example to gain better insight into what’s been agreed previously, to detect anomalies and outliers, will become more commonplace.

Technologies will be used to guide clients through the ever-increasing complexity of law and regulation governing their affairs and businesses, allowing them to more quickly understand those areas that affect them, conduct risk assessments to identify areas for focus, and to monitor and audit compliance.

Overarching this, technologies will connect better. This will allow technologies to be used in combination more seamlessly, increasing their power and the benefits they can offer. Allowing information to pass between systems more easily and having that information accessible in a more consistent and structured format, will allow lawyers to tap that data in increasingly sophisticated ways.

Christopher Tart-Roberts is the head of lawtech and chief knowledge and innovation officer at Macfarlanes.

Drew Honeywell Kulow is the innovation and engagement manager at Macfarlanes.