BarTech opportunity awaits

Don’t let solicitors steal a march on the Bar. The time is ripe to monetise your knowledge, consolidate your reputation and start up your inner tech entrepreneur


 

Email and electronic research tools have changed the way we conduct our practices. Every set of chambers now has a website. However, the nature of the practice of a barrister in 2019 does not differ materially from a barrister of 1999. Most of us still operate sole practices from a set of chambers based in a major commercial centre, receive our instructions from other professionals and charge on a fixed fee or hourly rate basis.

Our contemporaries in law firms have seen much greater change. A number of law firms have now listed on the Stock Exchange (thereby taking on non-lawyers as investors), detailed legal knowledge is the preserve of professional support lawyers, legal research has ceased to be a chargeable item, and some firms have launched on-demand fee-earner arms and/or moved teams to cheaper locations with a view to reducing their fixed costs.

In addition, technology has begun to make real inroads into the business model of a law firm. The development of artificial intelligence (AI) or Big Data tools has fundamentally changed the way in which law firms approach document-heavy tasks such as disclosure, due diligence and drafting. Algorithms provide reliable alternatives to human resource at a fraction of the cost. Firms are having to rethink their cost structures and to embrace technology (some engaging software specialists at a senior level or investing in start-ups).

The stark reality is that technology should reduce the costs of accessing the law and there is no doubt that clients will expect legal advisers fully to embrace innovation where it can reduce the costs of the provision of legal advice.

However, despite the technological revolution, it is surprising how little the legal profession as a whole – law firms and the Bar – has changed, as is evident in the fact that the ‘hourly rate’ is still the profession’s key internal and external tool.

The Bar advantage

Fundamentally, in embracing the revolution and satisfying the demands of businesses, the Bar has a number of key advantages over law firms:

  1. Members of the Bar undoubtedly are the leading experts in the law. The Bar offers unparalleled expertise in this regard and a greater visibility on the approach of judges which can be critical to guiding businesses through difficult legal issues. As fee earners in law firms move away from spending material time on legal research, the Bar’s advantage will grow.
  2. Members of the Bar offer real value for money compared to their contemporaries within solicitors’ firms; the Bar expense model enables a barrister’s legal practice to be carried out far more cheaply than it is possible for a law firm to operate. A senior junior can be much cheaper than a trainee in a large law firm.
  3. The Bar is less dependent on repetitive work; the bulk of the work undertaken by barristers is bespoke in nature and the technology tools transforming law firms do not have such obvious application to the practice of a barrister.

However, as a profession we need to be careful not to be complacent and will need to take advantage of technological advances as they become available and be aware that the regulatory regime may well change if it can be shown that the current market unduly inflates costs.

Key issues to think about

It remains to be seen how the courts will embrace AI and Big Data techniques. As things stand, we are free to draft statements of case and other documents in our own style. It will become tempting for the courts to move towards standardised documents/forms for litigation capable of being subjected to algorithms, enabling the production of (at least) lists of issues and standard forms of directions.

There is likely to be an increasing trend towards businesses consuming legal services on a subscription basis. One of the most frustrating aspects of accessing the law is uncertainty around cost. For a business, it is very difficult to make accurate predictions for cash flow purposes when engaging lawyers. Businesses are used to consuming other professional services on a fixed cost and it is likely that this will start to become the norm for businesses’ foreseeable legal needs. A number of law firms have already launched businesses on this model with some considerable success.

"Now is a time of incredible opportunity for the Bar. Never before have entrepreneurial barristers been given the option to launch businesses together to take advantage of such favourable market conditions."

Linked to this is the growing number of online businesses offering DIY solutions to businesses in the form of guidance and precedents for basic legal tasks. These solutions are becoming increasingly sophisticated and popular and may be sources of considerable work for practitioners in due course where clients need to go beyond the tasks they can undertake themselves. Businesses in this sector include Rocket Law, LegalZoom, SeedLegals and Sparqa Legal.

Electronic platforms and internet-based communication systems are making it easier for practices to be conducted from anywhere in the world, and over time the need for lawyers to be based near to their clients and in large and expensive premises will reduce (particularly if the courts start to adapt to using technology to dispose of matters using online systems and communication systems). It is likely that platforms will emerge in the next few years which enable lawyers operating outside the traditional law firm model to market better directly to clients and take care of billing and other issues. This will truly offer freelance lawyers the opportunity to conduct a practice from wherever they are physically located.

For those members of the Bar wishing to adopt a new business model, the ability to come together with other barristers (and non-barristers) in the form of partnerships and other legal entities creates greater operational flexibility than before. Equally, the Bar Council’s decision to move its Bar Directory onto the Juriosity platform provides multiple possibilities for members of the Bar.

In short, now is a time of incredible opportunity. Never before have entrepreneurial barristers been given the option to launch businesses together to take advantage of such favourable market conditions. The Bar Standards Board is able to regulate Bar-led entities and has an opportunity to at least match the Solicitors Regulation Authority in its regulatory approach to meet the 21st century legal needs of businesses. Current anecdotal evidence is that this opportunity has not yet been enthusiastically adopted by all members of the Bar.


Our experience of launching FromCounsel.com

FromCounsel is an online subscription service launched in 2016 by 22 members of Erskine Chambers and a team of professional support lawyers. It now provides corporate law knowledge to over 70% of the leading 100 corporate law firms. Its attraction to law firms is that it is written by experts on corporate law and has a charging model enabling them to avoid many hours of expensive research which they are finding increasingly difficult to pass on to clients. This model is equally applicable to other areas of the law. It shows that the Bar can look to secondary forms of monetising their extensive knowledge and consolidating their reputations in the market.


Andrew Thornton is a member of Erskine Chambers and a director of FromCounsel.com, Sparqa.com and Juriosity.com. Until its acquisition by Microsoft in 2015, he was a director of Swiftkey, the predictive keyboard company. He sits on the boards of and invests in a number of technology companies.

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Andrew Thornton

Andrew Thornton is a member of Erskine Chambers and a director of FromCounsel.comSparqa.com and Juriosity.com. Until its acquisition by Microsoft in 2015, he was a director of Swiftkey, the predictive keyboard company. He sits on the boards of and invests in a number of technology companies.