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Law firms slow to embrace 'new' technology due to a lack of desire and motivation to change

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Richard Susskind’s new book, The Future of Professions, suggests that technology and specifically artificial intelligence (AI) will have a fundamental impact on the legal industry and the role of lawyers in the future. It argues that our current professions, including legal, are “antiquated, opaque and no longer affordable, and that the expertise of their best is enjoyed only by a few”. I don’t think many would dispute that perspective! However, the book then explains how “increasingly capable systems’ – from telepresence to AI – will bring fundamental change in the way that the 'practical expertise' of specialists is made available in society”. This commentary sounds depressingly familiar, and while I’d like to think it will be proven correct, I’d argue that, certainly for the legal profession, the reality may be very different.

A recent online article reminded us that 2015 was the twentieth anniversary of the launch of Blue Flag, Linklaters ‘revolutionary’ online legal advisory service. I remember working on that project with the late visionary partner Paul Nelson. I appreciate that we have seen an increase in the use of the internet to deliver legal services to clients, and that at the more commoditised end of the market we have seen the emergence of legal businesses such as Rocket Lawyer using technology as its core delivery mechanism. But really…...we are 20 years on! Has the industry embraced and exploited the lead that Paul gave the industry? Sadly I don’t think so.

According to new research, we have apparently seen a 77 percent increase in online output from the top 100 law firms. The analysis found the top 100 were on track to post almost 47,000 'knowledge' pieces between them by the end of 2015, compared to just over 26,000 in 2014. Sounds impressive? However, the 46,866 posts equal just 128 pieces of content per day. The total output of approximately 62,000 lawyers means practitioners produce less than one piece of publicly available content each year on average. The use of Twitter has also increased by an average of 66 per cent across the top 100, but again this is from a low base of just over one tweet per firm per day to just under two. Remember, the internet and social media aren’t new technologies.

Another recent article offers a case study on the implementation of SAP by a major global law firm. Interestingly the article suggests that is has taken seventeen years for the relevant firm to move from product selection to implementation! This is only the second major implementation of SAP in the twelve years since Linklaters went live in 2003. Given the context in which firms now operate – increasing internationalisation, client demands for transparency and efficiency – isn’t it surprising that more firms haven’t selected the ‘ERP’ route.

So why are law firms so slow to embrace ‘new’ technology and innovation? It isn’t because the need for change isn’t apparent and it’s not because the technology that could support that change isn’t available. I wonder if it’s because the sector lacks the leadership, talent, ability, desire and motivation to change.

In an industry that has historically rewarded inefficiency, I believe some of the recent predictions for how quickly and radically technology will impact the role of lawyers are over-stated. In an industry where competitive advantage is driven by the ability of lawyers to consume, assess and synthesise vast amounts of complex information, 90% of technology resource and investment is still focussed on ensuring that email systems are working, there is enough storage and that lawyers can type a document. The availability of these commodities should be a given. Until this fundamentally changes, those in technology leadership roles in law firms will not have the capacity or focus to exploit technology for business advantage regardless of the opportunities that big data, AI or intelligent systems offer.

About the Author:


Simon Thompson is the Managing Director of Change Harbour. He utilises his extensive experience in leading edge law firm management, enabling firms to implement innovative solutions to deliver operational effectiveness and support revenue growth. Established in 2011, Change Harbour is an independent consultancy advising organisations operating in the legal sector in the areas of strategy, process, technology and organisational design.

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