Are law firms innovating fast enough, and more importantly, are they doing it right?

Whether it’s launching a tech innovation hub, developing an internal e-disclosure tool, or adding the role of ‘legal technologist’ to the employee roster, it should come as no surprise that technology is playing an increasingly crucial role in how lawyers and law firms operate. Last year’s PwC Law Firms’ Survey found that the top priority for business support in 2018 would be improving the use of technology, citing that ‘client experience’ and ‘operational efficiencies’ were the main motivating factors behind the adoption.

But as the legal industry begins to recognise the value tech can bring to the sector, it begs a few questions: are firms innovating fast enough, and more importantly, what are they innovating for?

Just this week, applications closed for the Next Generation Service programme managed by Innovate UK to help companies within the legal, accounting and insurance sectors implement new projects using data or AI technology. The government, recognising the importance of technology innovation in these areas, has chosen to allocate £20m of the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund to AI & Data projects. The allocation of these funds marks just one of the ways in-house teams and law firms should begin to take advantage of research and technological development opportunities.

Industry-wide narrative around the launch of a new in-house electronic contract tool or team collaboration platform, isn’t exactly ‘new’ by tech standards. While clients will be thankful for an improved user experience and your team of lawyers will now work more efficiently together, the gradual shift to newer tech needs to pick up steam, or the industry risks falling behind.

Security concerns and adequate training are certainly two items that will need to be addressed, but dated processes and lack of innovative technology will only be met with frustration by clients. It’s critical that firms begin to view the integration of technology as more than just a ‘nice-to-have’ and consider the transition a fundamental business objective.

While the launch of initiatives today with the aim of using machine learning and AI is certainly a step in the right direction – for the moment, these are still preliminary conversations around the development phase. For the tech industry, the surge in AI solutions began more than five years ago, and the adoption by other industries like retail and finance was seen not long thereafter. PayPal, for example, has been using deep learning to detect more cases of fraudulent transactions since 2001. In the entertainment industry, Netflix furthered its use of AI through the rollout of personalised trailers, delivering users with a better experience, more suited to their preferences.

Understandably, the legal industry is typically traditional and cautious in nature – and rightfully so. When it comes to dealing with highly sensitive and confidential matters in divorce, M&A deals, or other contentious disputes, privacy and security are at the forefront of a firm’s concern. However, out-of-date security policies for firm devices, old desktops lingering around the office with unrestricted access to sensitive client information, and physical paper contracts in the briefcases of many, the responsibility for security risks shouldn’t be all on the shoulders of technology alone.

Beyond this, ongoing tracking and monitoring of new technical innovation should become a ‘business-as-usual’ function. For law firms of the future, it’s no longer enough to just have artificial intelligence on the radar. It’s critical to begin mapping out how to utilise the benefits of this technology while it’s still relevant, and also become early adopters in the tech that’s still yet to come.

It’s crucial to ask questions around how the firm will remain competitive and relevant among its core client base if there’s a genuine lack of innovation. There’s also an effect on attracting and retaining top talent.

Not all technology is going to make a meaningful positive impact, and senior leaders need to have the vision to stand in their clients’ shoes and see what difference tech can make if the opportunities are going to be truly grasped.  This means that senior-level resistance of tech adoption should be met with pushback.

It’s precisely these senior-level leaders that need to be the ambassadors of change.

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