The year 2021 is going to be an interesting one.

By the time the new year has been rung in, we will have been living and working in a covid-19-influenced world for nearly nine months.

The new year can’t help but be shaped by it too.

While covid-19 hasn’t necessarily changed the trajectory that law firms or legal professionals were already on, it has greatly accelerated the speed at which they have travelled towards a new way of operating.

It has also amplified many existing trends, particularly around technology.

It’s worth taking a closer look at some of the trends that will be front and center in the coming year.

Knowledge management

Knowledge management (KM) will get the respect it deserves.

The innovation and KM functions were historically quite separate functions.

In recent years, we’ve seen them start to coalesce – and that trend will continue in 2021 and beyond.

In many ways, the marriage between innovation and KM has been a surprising one, because innovation was ‘sexy’ and ‘buzzworthy’, while KM was the frumpy distant cousin.

What people are recognising, however, is that to innovate you need to understand your internal processes, because innovation doesn’t sit by itself – it sits in a wider process.

This makes a streamlined merging of innovation and KM functions essential.

KM becomes even more essential when you consider the entirely unresolved question of whether physical offices will ever play the central role they used to.

Many firms have been hesitant to re-sign leases and take on the same amount of square footage they have in the past.

This makes KM even more important because when people are working remotely, they can’t just pop into somebody’s office to ask, for example, who has experience in drafting a share purchase agreement governed by Hong Kong law.

The bottom line? Firms need to understand what knowledge, information and context their lawyers need, in order to do their work effectively and make that knowledge accessible and the process streamlined.

In a world of continued remote working (not to mention a world of continuing pressure on fees, which means pressure on creating legal deliverables in the most efficient way possible), the existing best practices and curated content lawyers need will only grow in importance.

Alternative service providers

The year 2021 will also reveal continued momentum around alternative legal service providers (ALSPs), as firms either integrate existing third party ALSPs into their operations or develop their own outsourcing arm.

Why is there momentum in this direction? Because once firms assess their processes – and once clients assess firms’ processes – both parties are going to recognise that the value add of the firms is in specific types of tasks within the larger, overall stack of legal work that needs to be done.

Given this simple fact, many clients are going to ask, ‘couldn’t this large document review project be carried out by someone who isn’t billing at such a high rate?’; and ‘do we really need the senior partner’s involvement in so many aspects of this project?’

Clients are asking these questions because they are becoming more sophisticated, particularly as they expand their own legal operations functions or start using ALSPs themselves.
 
A due diligence review, or a real estate portfolio sale, are classic examples of projects where these types of questions might be raised.

If one breaks down complex transactions like these, one quickly starts to see that there are benefits to outsourcing specific tasks within those types of transactions – and that’s all the opening ALSPs need.

Artificial intelligence

AI projects will be finetuned for success. A discussion of ALSPs and efficiencies naturally dovetails with a discussion of AI and its increasingly frequent application within the legal space.

Fortunately, long gone are the days when lawyers feared that AI tools were going to replace them.

In fact, by 2021 most firms will have more than dabbled with AI, and many firms will not only have had their first success but also a few good wins under their belt with the technology.
 
As a next step, they’ll be looking at the people and processes around the AI tool to improve their success rate.

After all, it’s people, process and technology that drive real results, not technology alone.
 
There’s a better understanding among firms now that AI isn’t a technology that you just stand up and walk away from, or that you wave a magic wand at and suddenly it can do everything you ever dreamed of.

It’s a technology you need to invest in, by building the right processes (which may differ from non-automated processes) as well as a team of experts who understand the nuances and the detail of the technology.

To that end, some practical advice.

Firms embarking upon their own AI projects should look at all aspects of the planning around it, including being clear on the problem they’re trying to solve and the key skills that are needed.

Start with the desired output and work backwards from there, remembering to involve all key stakeholders in the process.

That will guide what inputs will be most useful for making informed, data driven decisions and how AI should be embedded into existing processes.

Worthy platforms

Another thing firms are likely to see in 2021 is the continuing consolidation of technology platforms and the greater integration of technology that a platform approach implies.

For years, firms have struggled with disparate systems that don’t talk to each other.

In previous years, this might have been a bothersome nuisance.

The ongoing covid-19 pandemic, and the remote work it has necessitated, has highlighted what a liability this fragmented approach is.
 
Think of the core systems that lawyers use every day to get work done.

Are their critical files and documents still readily accessible? Can they still easily collaborate with their colleagues or clients? 

Is security overlaid onto these activities, especially now that the work is taking place outside the four walls of the office? 

Do their systems readily integrate with technologies that have sprouted up during the pandemic to keep workers connected, like esignature or messaging applications?

The platform approach addresses all these questions, which is why it’s going to be at the front of lawyers’ minds in 2021.

Plan for the future

Amid all of these converging trends, firms need to be thinking about the future of work and the type of lawyers that they want to have working at the firm – and what that means for the training of lawyers, especially around existing technology.
 
What do you think your lawyers need to know in order to survive and thrive in the legal world in five or 10 years? 

How do you think your existing technology can help them get there? Where are the gaps around that?

What can you solve now and what can you solve for in a few years’ time? Having a plan is essential.

As firms enter 2021, they need to take a systematic approach, building on what they’re doing today, but having a long-term vision for how that will map out a few years down the road.

By paying attention to these trends – and seeing where, on the readiness spectrum, their own firm falls and whether they are prepared to meet these trends head on – firms will be best positioned to succeed, even in a year that promises to be as eventful and unpredictable as the coming one.
 

Stephanie Vaughan is global legal practice director at iManage RAVN imanage.com

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