Companies across all sectors are recognising the benefits new technology can bring, from improved productivity and efficiency, to lower overheads. The winds of change are even being felt in the legal sector – quite a cultural shift, given the notorious determination of many law firms to stick to traditional ways rather than embracing change (there are still many law firms with mainly paper-based filing systems believe it or not).
For a long time, the legal sector has had a set way of working that has delivered results and few firms have deviated far from traditional processes.
So why the change of heart?
In part, the pace of technological change has been so dramatic that even lawyers have had to take note. But on top of that, the legal sector is increasingly facing significant regulatory changes and challenges to the status quo. These have meant that decades of ‘business as usual’ have been torn up and law firms have been forced to look for new solutions, with many hoping that technology might provide the answers.
The Jackson reforms for example, introduced in 2013, made reliance on third party companies (claims marketing firms) to deliver new leads and clients much more difficult. Several areas of law are also being shaken up by the imposition of fixed fees, meaning firms need to increase efficiencies to preserve profits, while still delivering high quality of service.
As money becomes tighter and – for many firms – survival becomes a struggle, lawyers are hoping technology could be the solution and the once comfortably-analogue legal profession is now pushing at the boundaries of digital technology. There has even been a surge in interest for Artificial Intelligence (AI) and how it might overhaul a number of time-consuming legal processes, (particularly research) allowing lawyers to focus more of their time on complex, high value tasks.
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Sophisticated AI research tools are already being adopted by a small number of law firms in the US. For example, ROSS, considered to be “the world’s first artificially intelligent lawyer” developed by IBM, allows lawyers to ask questions with the system providing documents and citations to help answer the enquiry.
Rather than just acting as a knowledge database, this system can actually ‘learn’ to understand legal language, search through documents and legal cases, and suggest appropriate courses of legal action. And greater use of intelligent systems, such as ROSS, could drive efficiencies, helping lawyers to make quick and accurate decisions, while also reducing overhead costs and protecting profits. Case management is also becoming more streamlined as firms make the transition towards “paperless” solutions.
Aware that manually searching through endless piles of paperwork, or waiting for members of staff to come back into the office to get an update on the progress is no longer acceptable, law firms are investing in systems that can communicate and share documents quickly. This means that important information is always to hand and that sensitive data is stored safely and securely on the firm’s network.
It’s likely that this software will become more intuitive in the future. In our daily lives, many of us use smartphones to help with everyday tasks, for example, we may use “Siri” to search Google, put a reminder in our calendar for an event or bring up a map with directions to a particular destination. Currently, no such solution exists for managing legal documents, but surely one cannot be far away.
Recognising the legal sector’s digital renaissance, an entire industry of business technology providers is forming to help provide a solution to the needs of law firms. Many of these offer off-the-peg software for firms, providing tailored solutions for attracting and managing client’s needs.
While this is accelerating the digitisation of law, many firms are now becoming slaves to the technology designed to set them free. With off-the-peg solutions, many law firms are having to build their business around the software that supports them. More progressive firms are side-stepping this trap by developing their own systems, taking their vision of a new-model legal practice and building bespoke solutions that enable them to bring their aspiration to life.
Law firms may be arriving late at the technology party, but they are arriving with the force and enthusiasm of an industry that urgently needs new solutions to the challenges it faces. What shape the legal sector will be in after this digital revolution is hard to predict, but the speed at which the most innovative law firms are transforming, from followers to leaders, provides a fascinating demonstration of the transformative power of technology.
Dan Taylor is head of systems at Fletchers Solicitors, the UK’s leading medical negligence and serious injury law firm.
Elsewhere in the field of law, protecting your IP rights is becoming more important for business owners. In the past two decades alone, investment in protecting IP has increased from £23.8bn to £63.5bn, and shows that companies are ready to protect intangible assets from other businesses.