Last week at a very trendy Brick Lane warehouse venue in London, over 200 ‘geeky’ legal and tech-startup individuals got together to high-five (no handshakes allowed) and listen to high profile speakers on subjects including artificial intelligence, technology for legal innovation and the automation of legal services. LegalGeek conference frontman Jimmy Vestbirk is an entrepreneur focused on improving the legal industry with tech; he aims to make London the next big LawTech hub. LawTech is itself modelled upon the existing FinTech industry, otherwise known as Financial Technology, an economic industry composed of companies that use technology to make financial services more efficient; think about PayPal, the integrated payment provider, for example.
But what of this should be of interest to legal aid practices?
The newly emerging LawTech movement is cutting edge stuff, and currently the domain of global and top-tier corporate firms who have whole teams of people working on ‘innovation’ in the delivery of legal services (Freshfields, Allen & Overy, Clifford Chance etc). In some cases these firms are already working with specialist LawTech firms to implement automated document review/management Leverton, Kira systems, Ravn and trademark searching TrademarkNow to drive greater efficiency. And it was interesting to hear that imminent arrival of even more applied artificial intelligence such as programmable virtual people or ‘chatbots’ as an online customer interface.
But, again, how relevant is all of this to legal aid lawyers?
The presentation that brought all of the high-tech talk back down to the level of a more conventional law practice, was Pete Nussey, director of innovation at the Law Society who sponsored the event (here), who reckoned that the tipping point for the automation of legal services will come at some point over the next five years. Nussey explained how technology and online consumer buying expectations are driving this change. Firms with a private client practice need to be prepared for competition (price, method of delivery etc) and entirely new market entrants. Nussey argued that such factors were forcing law firms of any size and specialty to have to understand profitability and the need for better efficiency and differentiation like never before. And, he pointed out, that this seemingly unstoppable force for change and innovation is coming to an industry which is notoriously conservative and risk adverse by its very nature.
A leading investor, Suranga Chandratillake of Balderton Capital, spoke about the areas of opportunity within the legal industry to innovate through tech which were most appealing to investors. According to Chandratillake, the legal industry in the UK, and Europe, hasn’t changed, ever, and so is absolutely ripe for change now. He claimed to be prepared to invest millions into LawTech companies developing solutions for the legal industry as ultimately, those who succeed, would be in demand. The areas he was particularly interested in were:
- Opportunities for improved transparency: consumers of legal services don’t always see where the value is added. Providers of legal services should therefore be looking to use technology applications which can demonstrate the value they provide.
- The unbundling of legal services: the packaging up/ offering stand-alone legal transactions in an innovative way, incorporating LawTech solutions.
The likelihood of legal aid firms being able to innovate for innovation’s sake would be limited by budget constraints. However any future decisions they plan to take about online marketing spend, technology licences or upgrades, their methods of service delivery or indeed their overall scope/strategic focus should assess all such decisions within a framework of whether they also achieve innovation and thus competitive advantage. Furthermore, legal aid lawyers are, by the very nature of constantly changing funding and scope environment they have to adapt to, far less conservative and resistant to change than many others in the legal sector.
Legal aid innovators should be encouraged to engage with the LawTech movement at an early stage. Not only is the overriding ethos of LegalGeek to improve the overall legal industry with tech, but be heartened that LegalGeek, through #lawforgood, is already working with the likes of Hackney Law Centre on their Digital Insights report and #hackathons where teams of LawTech developers compete over 24 hours to design with the best software solution to access to justice in rural areas or for dealing with clients’ language barriers. Technology could be a solution to improve access to justice and many of the LawTech startups I spoke to were fully prepared to work with innovative and ‘early-adopter’ law firms by offering their technology and apps on a ‘guinea pig’ basis.
As one exhibitor, Garth Watson of LibryoLegal, tweeted later: ‘It’s good to be in the ocean when the wave breaks.’