The Law Society has just published a report on Technology, Access to Justice and the Rule of Law. Oddly enough (well, it seems pretty odd to me), I was once responsible for the Society’s research department. This is the memo I would send to the appropriate committee if I were to return.
- The Society published its latest technology report immediately before my re-appointment. In his introduction, the President hoped that the report would give ‘a framework for putting clients at the centre of developments’ and make an ‘important contribution to debate’.
- The report is well written and provides a fair appreciation of current developments within the access to justice sector. It makes good use of specific examples, though these tend actually to come from the not for profit sector rather than the Society’s members. It notes the impact of competition among providers, both commercial and otherwise: ‘a developer stated that the “biggest blocker was that the market of people supporting [individuals with legal needs] didn’t want to share resources and did not want to defragment” and a non-profit organisation noted that unique issues with each form of innovation were hardly ever shared between the legal services community’.
- The Society will be all too aware of the various competing interests within its membership and nothing would be lost in acknowledging them more openly. Large commercial firms are racing ahead with the use of technology which can only be the envy of those delivering services to low income people. Within that sector, the Society’s members are in (sometimes cut-throat) competition with each other. And many blame the Society for failing to protect them from changes to legal aid, regulation and pricing which are really the result of political forces beyond the Society’s control.
- The Society can easily be caught trying to please everyone; addressing an audience which ranges from government through the public and press to its members, falling between them all; and continually feeling required to justify itself.
- Any follow-up publication should begin with more clarity as to its intended readership. The current set of recommendations leans heavily on suggestions for government action. These are worthy; can be called in aid to defend the Society; but are unlikely to be of little direct help to members.
- The next report should aim for a more clearly defined audience. The key question seems to be this. What could the Society produce on technology that would be read with interest and benefit by, for example, a two person firm in Newcastle; a sole practitioner in Birmingham and a group of young solicitors thinking of establishing a practice in Walthamstow.? They currently feel bewildered by change; battered by cuts; distrustful of the Society; and uncertain of the way forward. What can we give them to help?
- Committee members will have their own suggestions but these are mine;
- a compendium of practical experience and analysis, published by the Society and with its contribution but based on a wide variety of other authors with more freedom to express challenging ideas that would be difficult for the Society itself;
- a hard-headed analysis of the market for firms in what was formally known as the High Street or Legal Aid sector;
- a knowledgeable examination of the use of technology in one of the City firms like Freshfields or Allen and Overy, preferably considering the lessons from comparison for smaller firms;
- as many as possible ‘warts and all’ descriptions of how and why small firms similar to the target audience have implemented technological innovation; the benefits; and the lessons;
- an analysis of how firms are becoming more virtual and using the net to expand their offerings to low income clients, including examination of why early pioneers like Co-op Legal Services (relatively) failed;
- examination of how solicitors can mix face to face advice where it is required with the use of technology which keeps costs low, in particular using video to do this;
- consideration of how practice will have to adapt to a virtual court and tribunal system;
- exploration of how practitioners in similar jurisdictions in, say, Canada, Australia and the United States are meeting the same challenges.
- And the key issue: how can a practice successfully deliver high quality legal services to low income clients?
You should know that I only lasted weeks in the research post and months at the Society as whole in my earlier incarnation as a senior manager. I don’t see that, by itself, as any reason to criticise the memo. Quite the reverse.