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Law and IT: time for a new blend

20 June 16

In a “TED talk” delivered at TEDxGlasgow on legal technology, a trainee solicitor with programming skills tells clients to challenge their lawyers on whether they are making the best use of legal IT

by Ruairidh Wynne-McHardy

We live in a really interesting time – technology has revolutionised countless industries. For example, we use robots to make cars that drive themselves to offices in which people use computers to create software that changes people's lives – from automatically diagnosing cancer using artificial intelligence, to making talking to people on the other side of the planet as simple as pressing a button.

Then we have law firms.

I’m a trainee lawyer – that means I’ve done four years of undergraduate study, a mandatory postgraduate diploma, and I’m now reaching the end of two years of working in a law firm doing a bit of everything. It’s hard work, and that’s made harder by the fact that lawyers aren’t embracing technology. Definitely a little bit of flirting, but we haven’t committed.

As an example, when I first started in my traineeship, a routine task for a trainee would be to check the court lists every day against a watchlist to ensure that we knew if clients were going to appear in court. It’s super important because if you miss it, your client could automatically lose their case. So every single day I’d have to open this huge list – it ran to hundreds of names – and copy, search and paste those names into the court list. It took forever.

As a naturally lazy person and a programmer, I developed a solution which did this automatically. I’m lucky that I work in a progressive firm who saw the potential and adopted this approach, saving hundreds of hours a year. But it got me thinking. If I could save so much time on one small task, what else were lawyers doing that wasted time?

The innovation hurdle

The answer is a lot. Law is a very traditional industry and lawyers are naturally analytical, cautious and conservative. They’re all great qualities in a lawyer, as that’s how you provide good advice to a client, but it’s not exactly dynamic.

Now it’s not necessarily lawyers' fault: they’re smart people, after all. But a lot of lawyers just don’t understand what technology can do for them.

Law is a self-regulated profession that is resistant to change. It’s very structured. Again, not necessarily a bad thing when it comes to predictability in the legal system, but for cutting-edge tech innovation? Not so much.

“Innovation” in the law has initially been pretty poor. During the 90s and early 2000s we started to use computer systems to manage law firms, things like practice management systems, and document repositories, a bit like an early Dropbox.

Many of those in the sector haven’t actually upgraded these systems from the 90s... but more recently we’ve started seeing cooler things such as document automation, and even a hint of artificial intelligence, which brings huge promise to the industry.

Interestingly, 80% of lawyers who responded to PWC’s law firm survey in 2015 said that they knew that they needed to implement technology in their firm to stay relevant.

Guess how many have made operational changes since that survey? It's 23%.

That’s extraordinarily low.

Change the system?

The problem is that currently a lot of the legal technology that we see is designed for the way that lawyers used to work. We still assume that we’ll have junior lawyers sorting through files, drafting documents and offering one-to-one advice. We’re complacent.

I don’t think that’s going to be the case. More realistically, we will see increased blurring of legal advice and legal systems. Instead of suiting up to go see your lawyer, you’ll access the platform you pay a subscription for in order to get the majority of your information. I’m not saying that you won’t need to get highly personalised advice from your lawyer on occasion, but you may find that the way you receive it becomes very different.

Law firms can also benefit from using machine learning to get faster at parsing your work, doing your drafting, and predicting the odds of your success in court. Imagine having a reasonably accurate percentage chance of success based on the judge, the type of case, and the evidence provided. It would be far more similar to a calculation and a long way away from “Hmm, I think you’ve got a good shot.”

The risk factor

I see huge potential in this blend of law and technology, and it’s what led me to create my software which automates processes. It’s a small step in the right direction, but there are so many opportunities available. We should be asking ourselves where lawyers’ work can be done better, faster and smarter, using technology.

OK, I know you’re all sitting there thinking “Yeah, this is pretty cool stuff, but I’m not a lawyer. I don’t really care.” Well guess what, most lawyers don’t either. It’s no secret that lawyers are very, very busy and don’t really have time to try out some crazy new technology at the risk of it taking up time, breaking, and having a claim made against them.

But there’s a lot to be gained by taking that risk. As a consumer, your legal work can be done faster, and to a better standard. If the court service fully embraced legal technology for its administration, disputes that would rattle on for months or years can be resolved in days, or weeks.

Those who struggle to access justice due to disability, cost or a multitude of other factors may find that their user experience has vastly improved, and in turn, their quality of life will improve.

For their part, law firms will drive down costs, increase their profit and maybe even let their junior lawyers get home early! Well, here’s hoping. But everyone’s a winner.

None of this has happened. But it could. And you are the person who can make it happen.

Posing the question

I know it’s often intimidating going to see your lawyer, or to go to court, or really to come into any form of contact with the legal profession. We’re not fun at parties either. But as a user of the law, you wield more power than you think.

Ask your lawyer how they are using legal technology. It’s simple. What are lawyers doing to speed work up using the enormous amount of technological potential that’s out there? What are courts doing to make their service better?

For the big corporates out there, this question can often prompt lawyers to take action, because they want your money. Better processes mean that you spend less of it. For individuals and small companies, you’re starting a conversation and shattering an indifference towards one of the most revolutionary inventions of the past few centuries. Collectively you’re creating a culture of expectation that will force law firms to sit up and take notice.

So as a trainee solicitor who has spent hours cursing the photocopier, battling outdated browsers, and doing tedious admin tasks, I say please ask your lawyer: “Are you using legal technology to its full potential?”

Ruairidh Wynne-McHardy is a trainee solicitor and the founder of Rollrun, which provides alerts of client names appearing in the rolls of court
 

 

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