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The law firm of the future – ready, steady, stop?

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Legaltech adoption has been on the lips of every city law firm. But is this really being put into practice?

By 2022 – that is three years from now – Wolters Kluwer reports that at least two-thirds of organisations already leveraging on technology today will be actively utilising technologies such as artificial intelligence, blockchain and machine learning. By 2022, there would have been roughly an additional 7,500 qualified solicitors in practice across the country, adding to today’s present total of about 147,000. However, in 2019, less than 24% of lawyers across Europe and the U.S. have a good grasp on how these technologies work. To make matters worse, 36% of these firms cite “lack of knowledge, understanding or skills” as the main reason for resisting new technology.

I recently attended a talk on legal tech and emerging technologies attended by both magic and silver circle heavyweights as well as alternative legal service providers. These are firms that have recently introduced programs for legal tech-focussed training contracts in a move to improve technology uptake within their firms. These are also firms that claimed to be at the forefront of legal tech development and cutting-edge technology in their solution delivery. It would be easy to then assume these firms would be at the vanguard of advocating implementing emerging technology, AI and the like, within their practices – and they are. In theory.

So what’s the problem here?

First, for all their talk, execution is lacking. What I mean by this is the severe disparity in this advocacy at a junior level. First, law firms of this size take on anywhere between 50 to 100 trainees a year. The average number of trainees taken on for their tech-based programs? Six per intake. 

This, one might argue, wouldn’t cause such a problem. These handful of individuals would be enough to aid in upskilling other incoming trainees. But here’s the problem with that: the current model of hiring trainees has not changed. If anything, there’s only been the appearance of one more question previously unseen in most training contract application forms: “How do you think technology will affect the firm in the next five to ten years?” This is nothing a combination of firm research and Googling can’t solve. It must be said, I am not criticising the current model; I too am a firm believer that solicitors require, above all else, strong verbal and analytical skills – but reading and knowing does not necessarily translate to real-life application. If legal tech is to become the mainstay of the legal profession, the ability to understand and learn basic to intermediate computer skills will need to be directly tested even at application stage. 

Second, even if we were to increase the number of individuals being hired under these technology-centric training contracts, we would not automatically solve the information gap within firms. For one, adopting emerging technology such as AI alone does not mean anything if it is not utilised by lawyers. During a trainee’s two years of training, it would be highly atypical to incorporate training with their hiring firm’s in-house solution software. Much of this responsibility is often delegated to said firm’s business and technology departments to allow the trainee ‘to focus on learning to be a solicitor’. The upshot: the trainee joins the vicious cycle of having a legacy training curriculum that does not incorporate, much less leverage on, modern technology. 

Third and most astoundingly, one of the most eyebrow-raising questions partners were asked during the talk’s Legal Tech Adoption Panel was “How are your firms changing the way new talent is hired to address this need for legal tech in the industry?” The answer: silence.

Of course, with mammoth firms operating on such a global scale, partners could be forgiven for being unsure about the ins and outs of incoming talent. Less pardonable, however, is the way this was worked around. Instead of embracing the notion that legal tech may, in fact, disrupt the legal industry from the bottom up, the following statements were made:

I mean, unfortunately, we’re dinosaurs, we’re not as good with the tech-y stuff as the young ones are. It’s for them to change it.

Which would be possible if trainees had a platform for serious consideration of their ideas, except:

Well, we do not see the need to change our model. As trainees, we too had to go through stacks of evidence in data rooms. How else will trainees learn resilience?

To understand how the technology works, you have to understand the basics. And the basics mean pen and paper.

It is absolutely right to advocate the need to understand the basics, but the basics will not automatically induce mastery – where advanced levels of understanding is crucial, especially in an industry where we are expected to be our clients’ trusted advisor. Mastery comes with time and practice. Quite simply, learning how to draft a contract will not teach you to code inputs into AI-based drafting software.

That said, there are exceptions to every rule. There will be tech-savvy trainees and nimble, adaptable law firms. There may even be a light at the end of the tunnel: Alternative Legal Service Providers (ALSPs). At the same Panel, some of the most reassuring comments provided about responding to the disruptive ability of legal tech were provided by ALSPs. One such example is one of them highlighting that the main reason their firm was set up was to operate as the in-between of a law firm and technology consulting firm. In other words, they set out to be sufficiently agile to keep up with modern technological developments, yet not too detached that they are unable to provide effective legal advice.

Nonetheless the problem remains: when something as disruptive as legal tech threatens to upend the industry, law firms at all levels need to respond to this like a properly-functioning circuit board. There simply cannot be the expectation that bulbs will light up if your wiring is fraught with short-circuits. Will this response come in the form of ALSPs? We will have to wait and see.

Further reading:

Wolters Kluwer, ‘The Future Ready Lawyer’ (2019)

The Law Society, ‘Lawtech Adoption Research report’ (2019)

Deloitte, ‘Developing Legal Talent’ (2016)

The Law Society, ‘The Future of Legal Services’ (2016)

What are your thoughts on the utilisation of legal tech within law firms? Feel free to send your thoughts to us here.

By Stephenie Ong

International Relations Manager at The Legal Technologist

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1 Comment

  1. Jermaine September 23, 2019

    I think there is a neater solution to this. I’ll gloss over the fact that solicitors (and not other qualified lawyers) were the focus of this article. I would keep the traditional training contract approach but include a 3 month “LegalTech bootcamp” in the rotation (which is about the length of most developer bootcamps) and open it not only to trainees but also to tech savvy / innovative lawyers at any stage of their career. This was you will have a blend of young, eager to learn bootcamp trainees and experiences laywers who want to innovate – a winning combination that doesn’t discriminate.

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