The Flex Legal Series, Part 3: What lawyers should learn from the tech industry
All businesses are being forced to engage with new technology and use data to optimise their operations. Law firms are no exception. But how should law firms approach software development? And how can law firms engage with data science? Our Global Editor, Becky Baker, discusses these questions and more with James Moore in the third and final part of our Flex Legal series.
James is co-founder and Chief Technology Officer of Flex Legal, an on demand legal service for paralegals. Before this, he was Chief Technology Officer and a board member at a major software company.
Becky: Flex Legal aims to differentiate itself in the market by using technology behind the scenes to create a seamless experience for clients. How do you make sure that you’re heading in the right direction as you develop your platform?
There are a few things that spring to mind. The first is that the developers have to be really close to the people who are actually using the software. It’s really important to have end users involved very early. The earlier we can get people using the platform, the quicker we understand the differences between what’s in my head as the developer and the reality of using the platform. As co-founder, I make sure I have visibility across the whole company because I want to understand what’s going on and where we have problems.
The second is that computers are really good at repetitive tasks that you don’t want to go wrong. We look for areas where we can use that capability. After spending a lot of time talking with clients, it was clear that compliance is something they really value. What I wanted to do was make it impossible for important tasks not to happen. Technology is great for that. Our invoicing, timesheets, and compliance are now totally automated. Take employee-related regulations for example. How do we know that everyone’s got the right DBS checks? How do we know there’s a right to work check? When does someone fall under the Agency Worker Regulations? We have a system in place that flags if anyone’s non-compliant, might become non-compliant, and if there’s any action to be taken.
Becky: I think it’s fair to say that law firms have been slower than other businesses to deploy technology in this way to improve their clients’ experience. Why do you think this is, and what could lawyers learn from the technology industry?
Lawyers are trained not to give strong advice – they give the options. Only when they shift to in-house roles do they have to begin to actually take those decisions. There’s a lot of trial and error in software development, and you have to get used to failure. I’m hesitant to generalise, but I think there is some truth to the stereotype that a proportion of lawyers’ self worth can become tied up in the quality of the legal work they do.
By contrast, most developers have made enough mistakes that they learn to detach their self-worth from the ultimate outcome. Instead you have to ask whether the team is learning and making things better. If we’re doing those things, then everything’s good. That said, software engineering isn’t a regulated profession. You probably don’t want your probate lawyer or conveyancing lawyer trying something new!
Becky: When law firms do decide to adopt new technologies, there’s a choice to be made between developing an in-house solution and licensing in an off-the-shelf product. Do you have a view on which route they should be taking?
As a general rule, where there is generic software to solve a problem they should use that. Software is really expensive to develop and the capital investment profile is very different from the normal work that lawyers do. If I do an hour’s work, I’ve got a chargeable hour that I can bill out straight away. It’s different with software. I did one project many many years ago where we must have spent £1m on developing the software, and we only ever sold £50,000 pounds worth of licences for it. It’s a very different business from law, and there’s definitely a learning curve for law firms.
Firms should be experimental, and will probably want to take some small bets initially and then build up after that. Bringing in experienced software and product people is a great idea, as is partnering with firms that have experience developing software. We spent three and a half years building our platform, and now it’s brilliant at managing a flexible workforce. We kept having people knocking on our door at semi-regular intervals asking to use our software to run their workforce. That knocking has become more and more regular, and we’re now working with a couple of firms and co-creating really good solutions.
Becky: As I understand it, many of those solutions rely on data to improve the running of the business. Our readers will be interested in how data science will impact the legal sector. Can you give an example of how you’ve been using data in practice?
Data science is a wide-ranging term that covers a lot of things. A key area for us is understanding our candidates, who’s available when, and who might be a good fit for a role. In general, if someone has previously worked for a client and got good feedback, they will want them back. We capture this data and apply lots of heuristic rules to it to help guide who pops up in search results. Ultimately the matches are made by humans, but the process is enriched with data to help our people doing the bookings be incredible at their jobs.
It’s not always complex. Most people can probably teach themselves to do a linear regression — think about a line of best fit. A lot of our data science is simple and can be done in Excel or another BI tool. A key question is how do you drive action from data. At Flex Legal for example, knowing who’s coming to the end of their placement in the next 3 weeks and being able to act on that is very powerful.
Becky: It’s clear that good use of data can drive business outcomes. Do you think there is anything holding the legal sector back from fully embracing the benefits of data science?
A major problem is that it’s hard to collect information at the moment. There are lots of startups trying to extract data from contracts — many of them are doing a great job. I would encourage lawyers to think about how they can structure contracts to make it easier to find that data. Can you have a top sheet listing the relevant information rather than embedding it in the contract? The other thing is that I don’t see lawyers using abstractions a lot. A lot of contracts have boilerplate clauses – why haven’t we just standardised them? Making legal data more machine readable will make it easier to drive insights and actions from it.