Technology and lawyers in private practice: hearing the drumbeats

Technology has certainly got the attention of the private profession around the world. Four reports on the future of legal services in specific jurisdictions, all covering the impact of innovation and technology, have been published since last August by from law societies and their equivalents covering Singapore, the United States, England and Wales and New South Wales. In addition, the International Bar Association has published a report specifically on artificial intelligence. This institutional interest, in itself, is testament to the growing realisation of the magnitude of the challenge facing lawyers in these jurisdictions. Their description of the current position in each jurisdiction is so similar that you might find it difficult to place quotations from their correct source. This is from the ABA Commission on the Future of Legal  Services:

Technology has disrupted and transformed virtually every service area, including travel, banking, and stock trading. The legal services industry, by contrast, has not yet fully harnessed the power of technology to improve the delivery of, and access to, legal services. The impact of technology elsewhere has led academics and experts on the legal profession to conclude that the profession is “at the cusp of a disruption: a transformative shift that will likely change the practice of law in the United States for the foreseeable future, if not forever.”  This is a transformation with “profound impacts on not just the legal profession, but also on clients as well as the broader society.” In short, lawyers will deliver legal services in new ways, and these changes will create unique opportunities to “improve access to justice in communities not traditionally served by lawyers and the law” and to offer better value to clients who regularly use lawyers.

It is difficult to get a handle on the range of technological innovations affecting the legal profession. The Singapore and New South Wales reports provide lists of the different innovations that are impacting the profession. New South Wales identifies the following: automated document assembly, relentless connectivity, the electronic legal marketplace, e-learning, online legal guidance, legal open-sourcing, closed legal communities, work flow and project management, embedded legal knowledge, online dispute resolution, online dispute resolution, intelligent legal search, big data, and artificial intelligence-based problem-solving.

Singapore adopts a slightly different and more prescriptive approach to the others. It seeks to establish as ‘baseline technologies’ the following as ‘seven categories of technologies that are basic enough to apply to all firms’ and including office productivity suites, time logging and billing systems, practice management systems, online profiles, communications (eg Skype), cybersecurity and legal research systems’. It then identifies a pyramid of progression in which the first stage (to take the next 12-18 months) is devoted to adoption of existing technology by all legal service providers; a second phase, in the next two to three years, involves the delivery of enhanced services using developments of existing technology; a third phase (to take place in the next 3 to 5 years is dominated by providing innovative services created by adapting emerging technology and, finally, we enter the head of the pyramid, a period of ‘legal tech acceleration’ characterised by inventing new technology. The Singaporeans have scoped likely emerging technology in workshops and consultations and it includes: shared workspaces, document review tools, document assembly, online swearing and affirmation of affidavits, contract databases and smarter search facilities.

The reports are very conscious that lawyers are not the only providers of legal services, even in jurisdictions protected, as is the United States, by laws against the unauthorised practice of law. The ABA report repeats a valuation of the market for legal firms and service companies providing bundled and unbundled documents and services. This industry has grown from nothing a decade ago to an estimated value of $4.1bn in 2014, ‘an annualized rate of nearly eleven percent over the previous five years and … projected to grow nearly eight percent to $5.9 billion by 2019.’ The annual income of the US legal profession seems to be relatively reliably estimated at about $400bn. So, the interlopers have captured about 1 per cent.

The Law Society of England and Wales report provides a helpful typology around four ‘clusters’ of innovation:

Search and extraction: ‘Advanced search functions based on machine learning that can identify specific legal information, blocks of text, clauses, anomalies. Machine learning can be used to speed up document review and create a more efficient, cost-effective process of extracting information from many 1000s of documents. To extract and summarise any provision from virtually any document/contract/lease.’

Data analytics: ‘Advances in data mining enable firms to gain insight from the increased amount of digital data they hold about workflow, cases, clients. Use the data to determine where the value lies in the services the firms provide to clients. Identify: the ‘right’ cases for the firm; client needs; legal risk assessment; workflow and case allocation’. These cover systems for mass document search, e-discovery, machine learning, data mining, predictive analytics, dashboard analytics (workflow, case type, legal spend, legal risk) and virtual assistants.

Document assembly and automation including smart forms, Q and A interfaces, contracts/drafting,’robo lawyer documents’ which are ‘Ways to transform frequently used documents and forms into intelligent templates that enable fast production. Automating the assembly and production of documents save time and money, it also reduces risk, increases accuracy and enhances compliance. Systems enable non-lawyers (in-house clients/ public) to complete forms and produce reliable draft legal documents without expert legal knowledge.’

Conversation assembly and automation involving chatbots, virtual assistant Q and A, ‘robo-lawyer’ questions’ where ‘The conversational instant messaging interface is able to provide users with information and generate a real-time document specific to a client’s needs. Chatbot /Robolawyer technology combines machine learning and natural language processing principles to process user information, answer queries, triage cases and provide a 24/7 point of access.’

These reports indicate a common pattern in four very similar jurisdictions. Innovation in the use of technology is, unsurprisingly, being driven by high end commercial practice. That is particularly so in the use of Artificial Intelligence. There is, however, abundant evidence of the value of a wider technological innovation short of AI to those engaged in providing legal services to those on low incomes. In particular, all practices will identify with the kind of ‘baseline technologies’ identified as mandatory in Singapore. The Law Society’s fourfold analysis of innovation suggests how much specialist technological innovation will be useable by all types of practice. Practices focusing on low income clients might, for the time being, feel that data analytics was beyond them but enhanced search facilities, document assembly and conversation assembly may well be exactly what they need to develop their low fee, high turnover practices.

Until the last couple of years it appeared that private practice might be transformed by national brands which had a web-led presence and offered variations of unbundled services. Co-operative Legal Services (CLS) were a leader in this field and obtained major publicity for its efforts. However, CLS has  now cut back severely and is reported to be concentrating on more limited packages that integrate with its funeral business. Quality Solicitors, a group of solicitors firms, who set up to challenge this type of approach has not been notably successful and defections have been reported from the network. There may yet, however, be new attempts to put together the national brand/glitsy website/self-help tools/video commnication/ automated document assembly/highly automised assistance package. Indeed, there certainly will.

Overall, the full potential of private provision to meet the ‘latent legal market’ remains still to be explored. The Law Societies and Bar Associations are aware of the likely forthcoming impact of technology and you can see that in the four reports that they have published within months of each other. But, though we can begin to see the impact of artificial intelligence in large commercial firms, technology is still really to bite on poorer private client firms – except perhaps in relation to practice management. The professional bodies can, however, hear the drumbeats heralding change and are growing distinctly restless.

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