Best of both

Barristers, it’s time to consider how we meld tried and trusted tradition with lawtech innovation. The future volume of work, and the legal market’s willingness to pay for it, could be in the balance, writes Anna Simmonds

The practice of a barrister in 2020 does not differ materially from the practice of a barrister in 2000. Innovation in the sector has been a story of quiet evolution, rather than revolution. Whilst iPads, digital law reports and digital case systems weren’t around 20 years ago, antiquated structures persist. There are isolated examples of new and innovative approaches, but the pace of change is slow (see the Bar Standard Board’s Provision of legal services by barristers: Research to explore how the delivery of legal services is evolving at the Bar: bit.ly/3att77G).

However, the trope that barristers are dinosaurs resistant to change is a rather tired and unfair one. Engaged members of the Bar will be increasingly aware of the emergence of ‘lawtech’ in recent years. Yet the focus to date has largely tended to be towards products aimed at law firms – document automation, contract management, e-discovery, document management and time billing tools to name only a few examples. The big law firms have started to embrace technology with an increasing awareness of the role it plays in their day-to-day business and profit margins.

The best lawtech products, by their very nature, challenge the status quo. The tension for the Bar is that self-employed barristers are very busy focusing on delivering their expertise – the day (and often evening!) job is spent in court or with clients. There isn’t necessarily time to explore alternative ways to run their practices and there is no room for error. If a new technology is going to be adopted, implementation needs to be seamless. Here lies the natural tension. New technology is often imperfect, and it can take time for it to be honed and widely accepted. Lawyers are typically risk-averse and tend to favour more established methods and products that they perceive to be more stable and trustworthy.

As barristers, we must consider how we balance tried and trusted tradition with the innovation of technology.

Consumer demand driving change

Now that the UK has left the European Union and is faced with an increasingly competitive domestic and international market, the work cementing the UK as a global legal technology hub is imperative.

Clients have previously tolerated the way that the legal profession works, for want of a better alternative; but one of the most frustrating aspects of law remains cost and the uncertainty that surrounds it. We are beginning to see clients and businesses start to insist on more transparent fee structures. We are also seeing a growing preference for consuming legal services on a subscription basis, in a manner more akin to how companies consume other professional services on a fixed cost. This opens the door to more innovative approaches and puts the burden on the service provider to ensure their processes are at optimal efficiency.

Many have already launched this business model with considerable success; start-ups are using tech and data to connect businesses with lawyers and offering more certainty on costs.

Lawtech is now big business

It is welcome news that the Ministry of Justice has pledged to allocate £2 million in funding to Tech Nation, to help support the digital transformation of the UK legal sector. Tech Nation is a network of tech entrepreneurs running growth programmes, events and leading research projects to support growth in UK digital businesses.

Tech Nation will be building on the work of the Lawtech Delivery Panel (LTDP). Established in 2018, the LTDP is a government-backed initiative that has brought together senior expert voices with an overarching objective to promote the use of technology in the UK’s legal sector. This includes ensuring an appropriate ethical regulatory backdrop exists to underpin it as well as promoting the UK as a leader in lawtech innovation. The latest move to appoint Tech Nation is one that will assist the Panel in its work to deliver on these objectives, focusing on the development of a ‘2022 Lawtech Vision’.

It is a move that highlights the UK government’s commitment to positioning the UK as a global leader in legal technology. Globally, the lawtech market is now worth $15.9bn, and it is growing fast – according to research by the Law Society unveiled at the Legal Geek conference in October 2019.

International investment in legal technology saw a giant 714% increase in 2018, reaching $1.7 billion. UK Investment into the sector has increased three-fold in the past year, rising to £61 million, compared to £22.2 million in 2017 and just £2.5 million in 2016.

The government has stated that the adoption of new technology could double growth in the legal sector from 1.3% per year to 2.7% per year.

As Daniel Susskind stated in a recent TED Talk: ‘Technological progress doesn’t just complement human beings directly. It also complements them indirectly… if we think of the economy as a pie, technological progress makes the pie bigger. As productivity increases, incomes rise and demand grows.’ Susskind, a Fellow in Economics at Balliol College, Oxford, is the son of Professor Richard Susskind, Technology Adviser to the Lord Chief Justice and LTDP member. The Susskinds researched the legal profession, and over ten others, for their book, The Future of the Professions: How Technology Will Transform the Work of Human Experts. In this they argue that the current professions are antiquated, no longer affordable and explain how ‘increasingly capable systems’ will fundamentally change the way that expertise is shared.

Technology can combine tradition and innovation

Increasingly agile barristers will already be using technology to adapt and enhance their practices.

Solutions focused on improved cybersecurity and data privacy, business development and marketing, research and case presentation solutions will all be welcome additions to every barrister’s toolkit, as well as document and case management tools for the direct access Bar.

Electronic platforms and online communication will continue to make it easier for practices to be conducted internationally. As a result, the need for lawyers to work in expensive premises near their clients may subside with time. This is especially true as the courts begin to use online systems to deal with matters. Roughly half of barristers’ turnover is spent on the overheads associated with the traditional chambers model; technological advancements allowing lawyers to serve the needs of a broader pool of potential clients without geographical restriction will see a direct benefit to profit margins.

HM Courts & Tribunal Service is currently embarking on a £1 billion digital reform process, with a focus on digitisation and online hearings. It is unclear how far the courts will embrace AI and Big Data techniques. In most practice areas, barristers are currently free to draft statements of case and other documents in their own styles, but we are beginning to see the introduction of standardised court orders. These are capable of being subjected to algorithms and document readers which will enable machine learning to reduce working time by issuing standard forms of directions.

Don’t be late to the party

The challenge for new entrants to the legal tech market is to satisfy professional consumers that they can meet their requirements and offer a service that surpasses clunky but familiar legacy products.

The challenge for the Bar is that it must not be late to the party; it must work alongside law firms and the legal tech industry as collaborative ‘development partners’, to ensure that the solutions developed continue to adapt to the changing landscape and the legal services industry continues to grow.

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Anna Simmonds

Anna Simmonds is a barrister and Head of Commercial at Sparqa Legal, a digital law service with a mission to make the law more accessible and effective for businesses and individuals, from the same minds behind FromCounsel, the online legal resource trusted by top global law firms.