Whether you are applying for a training contract or preparing for an interview, you will be expected to show an appreciation of the various issues facing the legal profession. One of the more significant issues is the role that technology is playing, in shaping the legal industry. But, how has technology influenced the way in which law firms operate, and what do these developments mean for the future of legal services?
It is easy to forget that much of the technology that we use and rely upon today, wasn’t widely available before the 1990’s. Try to imagine arriving at the office in the morning, and not accessing your emails, researching a legal problem without the internet, or preparing a letter of advice on a typewriter.
Innovations such as word processing software and emails are generally regarded as ‘sustaining’ technologies. That is, technology that supports the way in which a business operates by making tasks simpler, faster and generally more efficient.
A good example of this in the legal industry is the development of case management systems (CMS). In essence, a CMS is a piece of computer software that keeps track of client and case information and helps with the day to day administration of your case load. It provides a shared database of information that is accessible to other employees, creates and stores documents, and facilitates remote working, among other things. The consequence of using a CMS is that case management becomes far more efficient – less time is spent on file administration and more time can be spent on substantive matters.
Law firms tend to adopt sustaining technologies quickly, because they improve upon existing processes and have a real impact upon their efficiency and output. In short, sustaining technologies tend to aid the way in which a law firm operates.
Perhaps more interesting in terms of the future legal services, is the development of so called ‘disruptive’ technologies. These are technologies which, although in their infancy, have the potential to fundamentally alter an industry, either by providing a completely new service, or by providing a service in a unique or innovative way such that the old method becomes totally obsolete.
Examples of technologies that fall within this category include document assembly software, which can generate relatively accurate drafts of documents (such as contracts or leases) in response to a series of basic questions, and ‘intelligent’ legal search programs, which can ‘review’ large amounts of complex legal documentation, often more quickly and accurately than junior lawyers. There is even talk of using AI based problem-solving programs to provide automated advice to clients at a fraction of the cost of bespoke advice (indeed, the BBC recently reported that a legal ‘chatbot’ had successfully challenged 160,000 parking tickets since its launch in 2015).
The basic idea behind disruptive technologies is that they will eventually surpass sustaining technologies, because they will satisfy the same demand at a much lower cost to clients. In contrast to sustaining technologies, therefore, disruptive technologies do not simply aid but change the way in which firms operate.
There is a catch, however. Many businesses, law firms included, are hesitant to adopt disruptive technologies either because they do not initially satisfy market demands or because they are not sophisticated enough in their current form to provide a workable alternative. By way of example, the use of an ‘AI lawyer’ to provide automated advice on complex issues of law is unlikely to take off, unless or until an advanced operating system can understand legal nuance and convert this into bespoke advice.
What does this mean for the future of legal services?
What all this means for future of the legal industry is of course unclear at this stage. For some, disruptive technologies will eventually do to law what the internet has done to high street shopping – many of the old ways of working will become obsolete, and law firms will have to adapt to a completely new environment. According to this line of thought, ‘conventional’ lawyers will likely become less prominent in society as technology takes over. For others, the vast majority of technological innovations will never be sophisticated enough to satisfy the need for bespoke legal advice, nor replace the current systems of providing that advice, although they may continue to help make those systems more efficient. In either case, it is unlikely that the legal profession will be unaffected by future technological advances.