Deputy EditorSolicitors Journal

Rethinking lawtech

Rethinking lawtech

Jean-Yves Gilg urges lawyers to reclaim lawtech and apply its potential to the reality of practice

Another month, another report on lawtech as an access-to-justice enabler – or, to be precise, the failure of lawtech to do so thus far.

This time, it was the turn of the Legal Services Consumer Panel, who in its latest recommendations on the issue, has urged regulators to come up with a shared approach to encourage greater technological innovation in the delivery of legal services for the benefit of the many.

Technology crept on the legal scene with promises of a revolution that would improve efficiencies, bring down costs and make the law more accessible to a greater number of people.

These were ambitious pledges by a new generation of tech-minded legal enthusiasts brought up on dreams of self-driving cars and intelligent machines. Their infectious nerdiness could have remained just that if it hadn’t been for the 2007 crash.

The financial crisis that ensued precipitated state-funded legal aid into unprecedented austerity and provoked severe cost-efficiency drives in law firms.

Could technology help firms remain prosperous and allow the state to fulfil its commitments in relation to access to justice?

The picture so far is not quite the miracle that was envisaged. Technology is yet to change the way in which firms and organisations provide legal services.

It has been applied to deliver process improvements, especially in large firms, where artificial intelligence is being deployed to mine and process large datasets more reliably than armies of paralegals.

But despite claims by proponents that lawtech and AI would benefit all firms, the reality is that it has been the preserve of the top 200, with the more affluent mid-market firms only just beginning to invest.

For most firms, sophisticated legal technology is arithmetically out of reach at present. The situation is not much better on the client side for consumers and small businesses, who are yet to be presented with innovative and cleverly priced services. So how can we make lawtech deliver on the aspirations we’ve placed in it?

Changing the way we think about it, for a start. Tech success stories are about the innovative process just as much as they are about what it has allowed to achieve. How to categorise ride-hailing app Uber is a case in point: is it a technology business applied to transport or is it a taxi service using technology?

In the legal services sector, platforms such as LegalZoom or Rocket Lawyer, and initiatives such as CrowdJustice, provide a glimpse of what might be possible.

Like Uber, however, they merely use technology to connect users with providers. Lawyers are involved but as a by-product of a transaction outside their control. They are not at the heart of it, and that’s where they could make a difference.

Technological innovation can undoubtedly improve access to justice but for this to happen, stakeholders must come to two realisations.

First, that lawtech isn’t cheap. The intention may be for it to be affordable at the point of purchase but the investment and maintenance costs shouldn’t be underestimated.

And second, that, at this stage at least, even the most advanced machine learning systems are unable to read the whole situation and individual circumstances in the way a lawyer can – the kind of words used, the tone of voice, the body language, the overall demeanour, the skill of asking the right question in response to a passing comment.

Costs will eventually come down, so this points to one thing: it is up to lawyers to reclaim lawtech and incorporate it into the design and delivery of legal services.

They will need to work more closely with developers and others, refine process and pricing models, but only then will lawtech have the potential to make a difference for clients.

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