Capturing Innovation and observing competition in Legal Services: the Law Society reports

The Law Society of England and Wales has published the latest assessment by a legal professional body of technological innovation in its members’ markets: Capturing Technological Innovation in Legal Services. The Society is running pretty well neck and neck in the field with the American Bar Association.  The Society published its last assessment of the future of legal services in January 2016. The ABA Commission on the Future of Legal Services in the US published its report a little later in the year and then stole a march on its English equivalent by establishing a Center for Innovation. This published a list of the top ten law school innovators last month as it gets up to speed. The Law Society’s paper is solid – no less than 116 pages – and provides a pretty good overview of latest developments. Like the ABA paper and, indeed, the Society’s earlier offering, it is worth reading by anyone interested in keeping in touch with the latest developments in technology and legal services. It is not, however, without its problems in organising the vast amount of data that it has collected.

Some of the difficulties for the Society in the paper are evident in the opening message from its President, Robert Bourns. He may well have written it before his chief executive resigned on the specific ground that the Society’s council would not modernise itself by allowing reductions in its overall number or its members’ terms of office. However, his idea that the Society could act as an ‘innovation nexus – connecting innovators and their ideas with firms looking for a solution or an edge’ is bold; appropriate; but somewhat jarring for those who see the Society’s own embrace of innovation as more aspirational than attained.

A more structural criticism of the report is its divided perspective. This deploys, on the one hand, an academic style with, it must be said, a slight propensity for generalisation and jargon (as in ‘A typical robot is 33 per cent cheaper than the cost of an offshore BPO and only 10 per cent of the cost of an onshore FTE (Burgess 2016)’). On the other, it shifts to self help manual as the narrative pauses from time to time for a paragraph heralded ‘INSIGHT’ in capitals. This division may be integral to the conception of the project which is both ‘to capture technological innovation in action in the context of legal services … and to model patterns and steps towards innovation the might be useful to members …’ These two aims might be better separated. This would allow the narrative description of what is going on to flow unimpeded. It would then permit a more specific analysis of how different sectors of the profession might respond.

This structural fault is a pity because the core description of the innovative projects currently being developed is very good. The narrative is also broken up by boxed examples of specific initiatives. These must have taken a lot of work to prepare. The coverage seems pretty comprehensive. The paper should be read by practitioners for these alone because it would be hard to work your way through them all without being inspired to think of what you might do with your firm in your area of specialism. There are some rather shrewd observations scattered throughout the text as well – for example, the suggestion that much hyped IBM Watson may be less helpful in a legal context than it is a medical one and that other competitors might prove a better bet. Whether right or wrong, this is a subtle point worth exploring.

The practical tips are fine and very sensible. However, any Law Society publication is going to find it difficult to admit that one purpose of innovation is knock out the competition. All lawyers will support in theory the emphasis on the benefits of co-operation and collaboration. It gets a bit different when it comes to holding hands with the firm round the corner or a local practice faces up to a national brand. I wanted to know a bit more what the author, Dr Tara Chittenden, thought of some of the projects. For example, one insight is that ‘For B2C (business to consumers), Q and A interface systems (such as Rechtwijzer and Solution Explorer) offer ways to interact with potential clients in useful and time-efficient ways.’) I agree but both these systems were funded by state bodies – the Dutch Legal Aid Board and the British Columbian courts. Their methodology of guided pathways through which users move their way in response to directed questions is interesting and is used by practitioner-based products like Siaro which I was glad to see covered in the report. But, both the foreign products were actually developed to provide alternatives to lawyers. Interestingly, Relate was going to use the Rechtwijzer technology but pulled out of the deal. More detail and analysis would be helpful. That would, almost inevitably, involve the author moving beyond the corporate anonymous mask.

The Law Society might also benefit from accepting that, as far as technology is concerned, it has at least two constituencies. If you work for commercial firms like Freshfields or Allen and Overy, both of whom get favourable coverage in the report, it would be a bit shocking if a Law Society report could tell you anything that you did not already know about technology and how to develop it. You will already have adapted or been sidelined. The Law Society, however, does us all a favour in recognising and reporting on what those firms are doing. This is where initiatives involving Big Data and Artificial Intelligence are already making a difference and will be transformative. And, as the report says, will change the pattern of practice – for example, potentially reversing the offshoring that has occurred over the last couple of decades.

The sector of the profession that really needs help addressed to its  particular needs is the small firm of the kind that we once called a ‘legal aid’ or a ‘High Street’ practice. Overworked and under-resourced, its practitioners need to see off the challenge of dwindling fees from public sources; the emergence of national brands that threaten their local existence (or help in becoming such a brand); and the potential of competition from those outside the legal profession. What the report lacks is much sense that the essence of markets adapting to major innovation are fluid battlefields with opposing interests ranged against each other and competing generals seeking any marginal advantage. This is difficult for a corporate body like the Law Society to acknowledge. That is another reason why it might consider the advantage of publishing reports like this with a freer hand to the author.

This one report might be better as three: an assessment of the market overall; lessons from the large firms; opportunities for the small. Plus, next time, I would like to see Dr Chittenden not only demonstrating her skills as a synthesiser and reporter but giving a more individualised and less corporate assessment of what she makes of it all. Tricky to do that, of course, at the Law Society. But, actually, its members would get more from a less corporate and bland description. As to transatlantic competition, the ball is now in the Americans hands. The Society has made its play: what can the ABA’s Center for Innovation do?

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