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Lawyers and AI

09 Feb 2022 / Technology Print

Tomorrow’s lawyer

The legal profession is at a critical point where disruptive technologies like machine learning and AI are poised to transform how work gets done. Larry Fenelon urges solicitors to embrace the future.

Most legal futurists peddle doom, predicting imminent Armageddon for the profession. I’m in the opposite camp, however. We are in a relationship business. People need people – not automatons or robots. You will not be replaced by machines.

If you doubt me, simply remember the last time you couldn’t find the phone number for the bank, utility company, or IT provider on their website. When you finally did unearth it, you were subjected to never-ending pre-recorded menus and then put on hold for what seemed like hours, when all you wanted was to speak to another human being about resolving your problem!

Truth be told, I believe we are on the cusp of a ‘once-in-a-generation’ opportunity to improve working life, working quality, and work/life balance through a blend of business strategy, innovation, and technology. 

Outside forces

Those who will reap the benefits of this change are the ones who adapt. I think we all agree that we can’t stick our head in the sand and pretend change is not happening. We need to try to understand what outside forces are reshaping how law is practised in Ireland.

The pandemic has undoubtedly accelerated the era of ‘digital law’, with paperless firms becoming mainstream, remote court hearings the norm, digital court filings being piloted, online mediation occurring regularly, and e-signatures becoming de rigueur – not to mention the inevitability of e-conveyancing.

Most of us have some exposure to some of the above, so Irish solicitors are certainly adapting.

The ‘pandemic effect’ coincides with a time of significant change in the legal industry globally due to a variety of external factors, such as digitisation, deregulation, democratisation of knowledge, legal-process outsourcing, alternative legal-service providers, the continuing shift of the profession in-house, legal tech, globalisation, and increased competition.

Then there is the Legal Services Regulatory Authority, whose terms of reference include reports with recommendations to Government on sweeping changes to the profession, including:

  • Liberalising solicitor training beyond the Law Society, which will inevitably increase numbers from the current 11,849 solicitors in Ireland today (incidentally, Ireland has one solicitor for every 416 citizens, whereas the US has a ratio of 1 to 240),
  • Establishing a new profession of ‘licenced conveyancer’, who will do basic conveyancing at a lower cost,
  • Establishing alternative business structures that will allow non-lawyers to own legal practices, leading to private-equity investment and public listings (for example, Gateley and DWF),
  • Establishing multidisciplinary practices, where different professions can operate under the one brand (for example, EY Law, established in October), and
  • The potential merging of the barrister and solicitor professions (which has been put on hold for now).

Whether all translate into action is another matter, however. Make no mistake: the effect will be to deregulate the profession, opening it up to different ownership structures and increased competition, to the benefit of the consumer.

Legal tech

Then we have the issue of ever-evolving legal tech. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the legal profession is at a critical inflection point where disruptive technologies, such as machine learning and AI technologies, are poised to transform how legal work gets done.

The legal-tech industry is growing exponentially, as investors recognise the opportunity to disrupt a centuries-old profession through technology and data exploitation. In 2018, Bloomberg confirmed that investment in legal tech surpassed US $1 billion that year.

This figure was topped by Q3 2021, according to Crunchbase.

Earlier this year, Canadian company Clio (which operates in practice management) became the first legal-tech ‘unicorn’, valued at $1.6 billion. In Britain, 200 law-tech start-ups and scale-ups attracted £674 million investment (as of December 2020). The legal-tech industry there is valued at £22 billion and has been outpacing fin-tech, climate-tech and health-tech, according to a report released by the British government-backed Tech Nation in 2021.

It’s worth reviewing which areas of law are attracting the most investment. The top ten global legal-tech companies are:

  1. Ironclad – digital contract management,
  2. Clio – cloud-based practice management,
  3. ROSS Intelligence – artificial intelligence (AI) digital research tool,
  4. Sumsub – identity verification software platform,
  5. Notarize – remote notarisation,
  6. LegalZoom – automated drafting platform,
  7. LawGeex – contract review platform,
  8. Brightflag – AI legal-costs platform,
  9. ThoughtRiver – automated contract review and negotiation, and
  10. DueDil – predictive company-intelligence platform.

Key trends

It’s also important to understand what the current key trends in legal technology are:

  • Cloud migration,
  • AI contract analysis,
  • Online dispute resolution (ODR),
  • Online data rooms,
  • Legal project management,
  • Digital subject access requests,
  • Technology-assisted review,
  • Platform ecosystems,
  • Blockchain,
  • Cyber-security,
  • Data privacy,
  • Workflow/task automation,
  • Legal research bots, and
  • Data visualisation.

New law roles

Notably ‘new’ or ‘alt’ law roles are emerging in the industry, such as legal-knowledge engineers, legal technologists, legal-process analysts, legal-data scientists, ODR practitioners, legal-management consultants, legal-project managers, legal-risk officers, and legal operations.

Do not be surprised to see such titles being advertised by recruiters in the not-too-distant future.

Incidentally, Leman is the first law firm in Ireland to provide trainees with a mandatory legal-tech ‘seat’ as part of their training programme. We want to cultivate tech-savvy solicitors who can provide not just legal, but also law-tech solutions.

New law trends

Alternative industry trends are emerging, such as ‘fast law’, where lawyers can be accessed via platforms 24/7/365.

Alternative service providers in Britain and Ireland provide on-demand legal teams for project work in markets driven by in-house counsel, such as Johnson Hana and Axiom.

Digitised title and blockchain herald an infinitely quicker, less complex consumer-property legal market. Consumer conveyancing will change radically soon, and it will become even more competitive.

Contract management software (for instance, Avokaado) has heralded an age of automated drafting (for example, Rocket Lawyer and LegalZoom, which touts itself as ‘US legal help for businesses and families in Ireland’) and AI-diligence-driven review of corporate M&A documents.

The future of law

LexTech hosts an annual free CPD event for solicitors entitled ‘The Future of Law and Legal Technology’. Now in its seventh year, it attracts the best legal futurists and thought leaders, globally, to explain what changes we can anticipate for the legal industry and how to adapt.

One such thought leader, Dr Ron Dolin (Harvard Law School) confirmed this year that Harvard now teaches ‘Law 2.0’ as part of its curriculum, covering technology’s impact on the practice of law.

Another speaker, Margaret Hagan (a Stanford Law School lecturer and executive director of its Legal Design Lab) explained how legal advice is being designed and formatted to make justice, legislation, and regulation more accessible.

Chris James is head of digital legal at HSBC – a new role. He spoke about how his unit is delivering early legal evaluation of regulatory compliance for the bank’s incubation-stage, digital-banking products.

Legal project management was discussed by Casey Flaherty, founder of LexFusion. We will hear a lot more about legal project management as property, finance, and corporate transactions become more complex and high value.

There is a real opportunity for solicitors to drive value for clients to complete legal projects on time and on budget.

How to adapt

The external forces reshaping the legal industry in Ireland are not going away. They will affect every aspect of our practices, from labour to profitability. Left unchecked, practices that do not strategically position themselves and innovate will inevitably suffer year-on-year decline in revenue, profitability, and energy.

While all solicitors receive probate training in Blackhall Place, none receive training in business strategy, innovation, or technology.

The plethora of new legal trends and law tech, and the strong external forces reshaping the industry, are overwhelming. That’s why we established LexTech, which provides consultancy services to law firms and legal departments on developing business strategy, how to innovate, and what technology to adopt.

Next steps – five questions

Instead of advising you to buy some expensive software, I would recommend you start with answering the following fundamental questions:

  1. Mission – what exactly does your firm do?
  2. Vision – what is the aspiration for your firm?
  3. Strategy – how are you going to deliver on that aspiration?
  4. Goals – what needs to be achieved for the aspiration to become a reality?
  5. Culture and values – how does your firm go about these?

Once those are answered, you will have achieved strategic positioning. This will provide the clarity that enables your business to future-proof.

Read and print a PDF of this article here.

Larry Fenelon
Larry Fenelon SC co-founded Leman Solicitors LLP, LexTech Ltd, and The Future of Law and Legal Technology Symposium.