I am Head of Innovation and Technology at Family Law Partners, a firm of solicitors on the south coast in Brighton. The core team jumped from a large regional firm to open up here in 2011. I have been a family lawyer since I qualified in 1997. My first job was managing the Victims’ Support Scheme in Toxteth, Liverpool for the probation service. I left to do an English degree at Sussex University. I had become interested in the role of solicitors whilst working in probation, so did a part-time law conversion course at the University of Brighton, followed by a training contract with a High Street practice.
I worked with legal aid at my first firm as a qualified lawyer but could see the firm would soon ditch it as uneconomic. The low profit margin required large caseloads and the legal aid ‘red tape’ often impeded true client care.
My introduction to the world of technology was a friend who introduced me to blogging. I specifically wanted to help those unable to afford family lawyers. I built up a blog called divorce finance toolkit. I have rather neglected it now but it came on stream in 2011. I realised that I could reach many more people with a well crafted post than as a lawyer with individual clients. I eventually got about 10,000 visits a month. After about a year, I found that, no matter how many well constructed blog posts I wrote, the sheer number of enquiries I got pointed to the need for a new approach, such as an app. My virtual post bag was full of child maintenance queries. When I checked the official government calculator on its website, I thought I could do better and I created my own. That spurred me on to finish another project started in 2010: an application with triage as its core aim, which could gather all the information that family lawyers need to provide specific advice prior to a first interview.
I designed the application to mirror real-life client to lawyer communication. It took me three years to build and ended up having more than a thousand questions driven by conditional logic tailored to the user’s circumstances. It’s a bit like having a virtual family lawyer. We deployed it at Family Law Partners in July 2014 and still use it. Over 600 clients have commenced their journeys with us via this application, which we call Engage. I had a go at building a similar application called Siaro as a commercial product. Alas, it didn’t work. We ran out of development money and had zero marketing budget. I did apply to a commercial firm’s innovation laboratory for support but they were more focused on commercial law applications that would scale.
Despite the demise of Siaro, I retain the ambition to expose other family lawyers and the wider public to the use of technology in identifying clients’ problems. The result is that I am now rebuilding our Engage application so it can be shared with other family lawyers. At the same time as gathering facts from a prospective client, Engage provides explanations on the relevance of the questions so it has acquired the attributes of a client preparatory tool. It deals with all property matters, including calculations of income and capital. It also raises any third party interests e.g., grandparents or new partners – so that more comprehensive conflict search can be conducted immediately. Engage explains the different models of resolution and funding options available. The client can express their preferences so the first consultation gains greater focus. The lawyer receives the client submission in a way that gives them a ‘heads up’ on any major issues. For instance, we have ‘red flags’ for domestic abuse or imminent court hearings.
We think offering access to an application like Engage gives better value than an initial free interview. We know that time-pressured, free advice from lawyers does not resolve clients’ problems. Generic advice given on most websites is no better. Advice tends to have no value unless it is tailored. You need to tailor advice to the facts. Family lawyers are expected to be ‘touchy feely’ when first meeting a client but it takes about one hour 20 mins to gather sufficient facts. If the client has elevated distress, that can rise to two hours. Add tailored advice and that takes you to around two hours 20 minutes. That, at any rate, is our experience here. Our professional indemnity insurance premium was reduced when the insurer realized we had directly addressed key risk factors in our Engage application. The risk stems from advising in the absence of sufficient facts and failing to understand client expectations.
I believe that in the family field there is a genuine value in the human interaction. Clients should feel that you have an arm around their shoulder. That is a crucial component of what family lawyers provide. Technology can’t replace that value but it can be a bridge to it. We know that the real value of lawyers is the client believing that their lawyer has their back, intimately understands the challenges their family faces and, ultimately, can be trusted. Unfortunately, as a lawyer hoping to connect with a client at this crucial first meeting, our processes focus too much on scribbling down notes and trying to avoid the risk of giving advice until we have enough information. Most lawyers genuinely want the best for their clients. We have got to make it easier for clients to access the real value that lawyers offer, which can get pushed out by our inefficient analogue processes.
I am forming a small group of family law firms that have expressed an interest in piloting Engage. The application should be ready for use before the end of the year. My hope is that we can foster a collaborative approach between the pilot firms and share some valuable learning that will ultimately help us better connect with prospective clients.
I see the development of Engage within a wider context. We have a Knowledge Transfer Partnership with the University of Brighton funded through Innovate UK. We have embedded within our family team a Knowledge Systems Engineer working a full-time two-year placement. He is focusing on two other family law apps. One is akin to an e-discovery application for dealing with voluminous financial documentation. The other will allow members of the public with family law issues to identify the best dispute resolution model for their difficulties. The algorithm behind our prototype now has an 85% accuracy rate which in the complicated arena of family dynamics is astonishing. I’m convinced a free-to-use, early intervention application like this, accessible before conflict levels escalate, will divert more people away from the court process.
To do this work in the firm, I had to prioritise my time. I juggled cases and firm management with development for the first five years. It almost killed me. I was able to get recognition, support and genuine permission to come away from fee earning. Any lawyer wishing to follow an innovation path will need the same. This development is expensive of course. Our belief is that designing applications around client needs will provide a return for the family law community, not least that we are innovating to help younger lawyers have sustainable future careers. All of the applications my firm is working on will be available on an independent platform called Family Law Lab.