- Issue #7 March 2019 -
What will the law firms of the future look like?
Technology such as digital scheduling, virtual receptionists, telepresence robots, and even artificial intelligence will affect the law firm of the future.
“Change is the only constant in life,” it was said by Heraclitus, the Greek philosopher, around 500 B.C. As we survey the landscape of the legal services industry – both in the UK and abroad – that saying has more resonance than ever before. This is largely thanks to the emergence of new technologies such as artificial intelligence and robotics, as well as a new attitude to issues such as work, productivity, work-life balance and our perception of how legal services should and can be delivered. What is strikingly different from the time of Heraclitus is the sheer tenacity and pace of change that is sweeping across the legal services industry.
Law firms are in a race to find new technological advances that can be implemented in their workforce to improve efficiency, productivity, speed of delivery and even the quality of work with the aid of machine learning and robotics. Law firms are also more aware now than ever before that consumers of the legal services industry demand and expect law firms to become more agile in terms of their adoption of new technologies to provide better and cheaper products.
Gone are the days when law firms could simply open their doors to clients and, provide they had some channels of referrals, focus on the intellectual rigour of their work. Of course lawyers are still expected – and always will be – to ensure that the substance of their legal work is spot on. But now there is an unspoken expectations among clients of the legal services industry that law firms think about their clients problems more holistically and that they job goes beyond just providing legal services and extends into the realms of how best to offer those services. The law firms of the future must be able to embrace this changing attitude and be able to provide answers to those questions in a convincing way.
So what are the key influences for law firms of the future to consider?
Law firm structure
Law firms have traditionally operated in a very inwardly looking manner, whereby they would provide the clients with a one-stop-shop so that all of the clients’ needs are addressed in one law firm. This has not only been the industry trend but one that the industry prides itself on, which is demonstrated by the number of smaller firms scrambling to expand their operations horizontally so that they can meet their client’s every need. It is often assumed that providing a one-stop-shop provides clients with convenience whilst allowing the law firms to build a competitive advantage as it requires hefty resources and rigorous management to be able to provide clients with a one-stop-service.
However, as other industries have gone through tectonic shifts in the way they operate, mostly disrupted by technological changes, clients in the legal services industry have come to expect and demand similar changes in the legal services industry. For example, legal clients are now far more aware of the law firms’ overhead costs which directly impact on the extortionate fees that the clients pay for the provision of legal services. Clients are also aware of the pace of technological innovation across other industries such as electronics, retail and even personal banking and, having experienced the positive difference that innovation makes to their lives, they have come to expect law firms to make similar in-roads.
As a result, the law firms of the future will need to embrace this new wave of client expectations in how they deliver legal services in order to be competitive. In practical terms, law firms of the future will be expected to better utilise office space, to use an example, with a view to cutting overhead costs and passing those savings to clients. Clients will also expect law firms to become more operationally agile through a combination of having remote offices and using online tools for client interaction and communication. Law firms will also be expected to upgrade their own technological tools to assist them in delivering more accurate advice, in a time efficient manner.
New solutions to old problems
Irrespective of the pace of change in the legal services industry, new technological products and services, tailored to legal services, will eventually make its way into law firms. The aim of such products and services is to help the legal services professionals, lawyers, do their jobs at a faster pace, in a more costs effective way and with better accuracy. Those products have already entered the legal services market via different providers and can range from legal research tools using artificial intelligence such as Ross Intelligence, to project management software application such as Clio, to practice field specific software applications that are developed in-house by the law firms.
There are also other products and services that help law firms better deal with the administrative work such as virtual assistants that can help clients with queries regarding routine issues that robots can handle. Another example would be Receptionist for iPad, a simple registration system that can help firms manage visitor flow and deliveries, plus allow two-way communication between hosts and guests
All of the above features, products and services may seem a little remote for present day law firms. However, as client demand for efficiency, accuracy and quality of service increases, those products and features will likely become mainstream in every law firm. In this type of landscape, the law firms that have the courage to become early adopters of these changes will stand to benefit the most in the longer terms as they will secure a competitive advantage that will be difficult for newcomers to emulate.
The legal services industry is going through some fundamental changes to the way it interacts with clients, the way it provides services to clients and the kind of services it provides to clients in an increasingly global world. However, of all the changes, artificial intelligence and machine learning will be the game-changers in the legal services industry. In a modern day law firm, legal cases usually comprise of a series of documents that are stored across a broad range of locations, including but not limited to, document management systems, email platforms, instant messaging, mobile technologies, social media platforms, servers, etc. It is well known that being a lawyer has traditionally involved reading papers, doing research and carrying our fact sensitive analysis. But the 21 century lawyers can have solutions at their disposal that can make that job much easier, less time consuming and much more accurate. Those solutions typically involve data collection, computer forensic analysis, data processing, hosting and production.
It is perfectly likely that artificial intelligence will be key driver of change in the legal industry transforming the way law firms are delivering legal services with an emphasis on robot-assisted review of documents, computer assisted analytics and case management. This will enable lawyers to automate routine and mundane tasks reducing the time lawyers spend on each which can help them reduce the fees they charge their clients. The use of automation will also allow lawyers free up significant time which they can now spend focusing on the key, technical issues relating to legal cases rather than being distracted by mundane tasks that does really advance the case.
The legal sector is the perhaps one of the few industries where robotics is highly unlikely to replace human staff, but it is an industry where robotics can work alongside human lawyers to aid their preparation, analysis and case strategy. This wave of technological change is already starting to take shape as legal robotics such as Kira Systems which helps lawyers with due diligence and analysis. We’ve already witnessed the world’s first artificially “intelligent” lawyer. Built on IBM’s Watson, “Ross” can, an artificially intelligent legal research tool, has the capability to understand natural language and suggest proposals for what cases should be cited in a legal brief.
The use of artificial intelligence can help lawyers improve their work processes, minimise research time, assist lawyers in tasks such as data analysis, risk management and decision making recommendations.
Virtual reality is another technological innovation which is likely to gain significant traction in the legal services industry, with the aim of assisting client – lawyer communication away from offices but without losing the visual element of the client – lawyer interaction which clients in particular consider very reassuring. In an increasingly global world where legal professionals are increasingly interacting with clients in various different jurisdictions, the ability to imitate an in-office meeting between lawyers and clients will be a key milestone for the legal sector and will bring significant benefits to both lawyers and clients.
It’s exciting to be able to witness the new wave of technological innovations that are shaping the legal services industry. At present, most of the disruptive technological products have only been introduced to the market for no more than a few years and it would be naïve to assume that an industry so traditionally conservative will embrace change en mass. But these days we live in a world where the consumer reigns supreme and when they demand changes to the way legal service is provided, even lawyers will take notice.