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Will AI really revolutionise the legal sector – and what should you be doing about it?

14 February 2023

Like in many industries, technology is sweeping through the legal sector with all its promises of automation, algorithms, artificial intelligence learning, and overall streamlined efficiency.  As a legal professional, tasked with several hours of daily reading or managing client documents, it’s hard not to be wowed and wooed by the idea of advancing technology transforming some of the more mundane tasks that come with the job.

A machine that can learn how to read incoming e mails, draft advice  or unpick the details of a commercial contract would certainly leave more time for building client relationships and supporting your team. Yet to reach the heady heights of innovative law firm efficiency, some humanistic factors must be taken care of first.

In this article, I’ll unravel why legal tech solutions require a very precise set of environmental conditions to be implemented effectively in a law firm. These factors – team buy-in, openness to change, teamwork and knowledge – are all unequivocally human. Cultural conditions that cannot be automated or scheduled, machine-learnt or programmed; are yet the essential prerequisite to making legal technology work. Here’s why.

Implementing change in the legal sector is notoriously challenging

Well known for their analytical prowess, lawyers have a knack for unpicking detail. So, when it comes to change and innovation, a team of lawyers will need a great deal of contextual information to back a big change. To help combat this resistance, there are a few things worth keeping in mind whilst setting the scene for the introduction of legal tech: 

  • Without a wider context of how technology will benefit people, the change will be open to rigorous scrutiny. Questions will fling from all fractions of the firm, what this and why that, and how to and how come.
  • If you want to win the hearts and minds of the people who will adopt the technology, then you’ll need to accept that not everyone will be in the same stage of the innovation adoption cycle.
  • For those responsible for guiding people through that adoption journey, it’s crucial communication comes in articulating what the change is, why it’s coming, and what it will and won’t do for the people in the room.

And all that begins with first finding the problem…

Identifying the problem that the legal technology will solve  

There’s no doubt that legal technology products can ignite excitement in a law firm. It can spark visions of reduced business cost, enhanced client experience and time-saving efficiencies. However, without applying the tech’s true functionality to your law firm, and to the daily tasks of the lawyers working within your law firm, all you have is a product and not a solution.

In a recent episode of my From the Boardroom to the Courtroom podcast, I spoke to Dr Catriona Wolfenden, Partner and Product and Innovation Director at Weightmans LLP, about the prerequisites involved in bringing technology into a law firm. The question you should be asking, Catriona told me, is, “what is the problem you are trying to solve? Unless you have that really clear and nailed at the beginning, then anything you throw on top of a process is just going to make it more chaotic. It’ll make it faster, but you’ll have faster chaos.”

“It’s stepping back,” expands Catriona, “having a look at the problem and what the process is, and then fitting in the people and the technology.” Without doing so, risks implementing technology too prematurely for the end user to be able to truly benefit from the product.

Yet like anything, it’s also about balance and avoiding the thought that tech will solve the whole equation. Let’s say the problem a law firm is trying to solve centres on speedier resolutions – then technology can of course be used to automate a job that a lawyer would otherwise be doing; reading reports, extracting key points, and trawling data.

The contention comes however when we’re asking the machine to make decisions or forecast outcomes. “Lawyers like to see the reason, that explainability is really important,” Catriona says. “That’s why when we look at tech, we think what is the explainability, so it’s not one of those scenarios where computer says yes, or computer says no. We don’t just want an answer in a vacuum.”

It’s at this point that professional legal thinking and specific tech talent merge with technology to create an effective hybrid solution, one where humans and artificial intelligence work in tandem.

Identifying the people who will pull technology into its proper purpose

We’ve heard already how failing to apply technology to the functionality of a law firm can result in procuring a product rather than a solution, but that application alone won’t be enough to make the integration of human and machine effective. That’s because the quality of your technical team, whether it’s your in-house team or a trusted outsourced development consultancy, will dictate not only the quality of the implementation but also the value that the user and the business will get from the tech itself.

And however technically savvy an innovation team might be, that knowledge must be married with empathy and understanding of what it is that lawyers do. I discussed this with Catriona during the podcast episode ‘Robot Lawyers?’ making the point that any technical team must also comprehend lawyer processes, how they make money, what their client expectations are, what secretaries want, and what’s going to annoy them. Because, if you don’t have empathy and experience with what legal teams want, any tech will be a very hard sell.  

As Partner and Product and Innovation Director at Weightmans LLP, Catriona agreed. Whilst also inflecting the conversation to think not just about the technical team, but the entire workforce involved in adopting technology within a law firm. “People are so important in innovation,” she told me, “Understanding the different characters, and what levers to pull really helps get use cases through.”

“You want a great sphere of people from across the business to be involved in the tech conversations,” asserts Catriona when we discuss who exactly to add to those all-important meeting invites. “People who aren’t tech-savvy, people who are likely to be argumentative, involve junior and senior people, collate a broad spread of experience.”

This way of working will help you to:

  • identify broad problems
  • spot a multitude of pain points
  • create a technological solution that is multifaceted
  • ensure that solution is widely across the law firm

“Picking things that are firm-wide – email filing for example – are things that are an easy win and will get adoption early so that you can build momentum in technology innovation,” reflects Catriona.

Treat tech as your new team member: working alongside, not replacing

So, what does the future of legal tech look like then? Is it all holographic judges and robotised barristers dialling into court from a metaverse? “That’s the million-dollar question,” responds Catriona. “We’re already seeing the profession train people much differently. Back in the day when I trained, it was the I-shaped lawyer, so it was legal skills, a few soft skills at the bottom but there wasn’t much else”.

“The T-shaped lawyer came next, if you imagine the crossbar shape, that was your legal skills plus problem-solving skills, maybe some BD, marketing, and client skills. Now we are very much into the O-shaped lawyer, someone who is open-minded, and opportunistic.”

“I think technology will probably advance a lot faster than society and the profession can embed it into law firms, but actually, we should use technology to do the heavy lifting, the mundane, discrete tasks but not replace the job of a lawyer who is now being trained in the right way to adopt the tech themselves.”  

5 Tips For Embracing Technology In Your Legal Business:

  1. The first “hearts and minds” you must win are around your top table – whether that’s Shareholders, Partners or a Board of Directors. Those pulling the purse strings must support your vision as leader
  2. Cost your IT investment carefully and do not under egg the pudding. If you have Rolls Royce ambitions, you need a budget to match. If you invest at Ford Escort prices, you’ll come away disappointed
  3. You must make your decision on how your resource your tech plan from a personnel perspective. Whilst an internal IT team could well be an option worth exploring, do not underestimate the expertise and time that it takes to lead a technical team.
  4. You need to define what success looks like. Having funky tech is not success in itself. 99% of law firms want more clients, more productive staff and greater profitability. Define what value would want tech to add and measure it
  5. Do not allow frustration to take. No project is trouble free. It’s your job to set the course and keep the team positive

The future of the legal profession is not “simply more bums on seats, it’s not just filling rooms full of lawyers, it’s diversifying, being able to have tech compiling advice or giving an outcome whilst you sleep.” These are all new technologies, ways to automate and programme, and yet it still all goes back to people, training them, or using skills, in a slightly different way. A way that fosters change and technological innovation.

By having lawyers work better alongside the legal technology, the tech product in question becomes like a member of the team, an extension of the department. Brought in to do a specific role, with a tailored job description and responsibility parameters. And in the same way a paralegal wouldn’t know about a supreme court case unless they were updated on it, technology needs to be informed by real-world contextual information too. We up skill and train lawyers, and technology should be treated similarly, professional development for both human intelligence and its artificial counterpart. 

Take Chat GPT – the chatbot artificial intelligence technology that has caught my attention, along with many others, since its launch in November of last year. In the podcast, I touch on Chat GPT with Catriona, “a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing,” she warns when I share my mixed experience of using the product.  

Yes, you can ask artificial intelligence technology a question and get a seemingly accurate answer back – but it’s knowing how to apply that answer in a way that serves real benefit that’s the key to implementing legal tech. “Part of being a lawyer is being trained in how to find good pieces of fact or evidence and being able to back that up,” and for now at least, that’s a skill that remains fundamentally human.  

If you’re interested in exploring how legal tech can help your law firm operate more efficiently, then at Spirant Group, our door is always open.

Get in touch.