‘I’d like to cut through the hype to propose that we’ve reached an important, positive tipping point’

While talk of robots replacing lawyers grabs attention, it’s an unhelpful distraction that makes innovation seem like something from an Asimov novel.

I’d like to cut through the hype to propose that we’ve reached an important, positive tipping point.

That’s not to say that technology is not playing a significant role in the legal industry. It is and will increasingly do so. And while predictions of robots replacing lawyers sound a little panicked, studies still suggest that between 13 and 39 per cent of legal jobs will be automated within two decades.

However, the narrative around “robots dooming lawyers” has been replaced by a more constructive debate concerning innovation as a powerful enabler of better legal services for all.

This proposition finds support in the Law Society’s recent Capturing technological innovation in legal services report. Examples from firms and in-house teams paint a picture of a dynamic sector embracing innovation right across the way lawyers operate, deliver services and engage with clients.

Why now? Most of the changes we see are rooted in responding to external pressures. For years, powerful forces have been driving changes in our industry and a dynamic response was essential for growth or even survival.

Much of the pressure has come from the buyers of legal services. As corporates tightened their belts after the global financial crisis, in-house teams were repeatedly asked to do more for less. They, in turn, made similar demands of external counsel. Part of that solution has been to examine carefully how technology and innovation more generally can reduce the burden.

For instance, technologies such as robotic process automation have been deployed to cut the cost of manual processes by 20 to 40 per cent and, by reducing human error, have significantly increased the accuracy of output, cutting time spent on reviewing and correcting work.

As lawyers and their clients become more familiar with technological and other innovations in the legal sector, such activities are increasingly being viewed as prizes to be actively pursued, rather than just “necessary evils”.

This shift from a reactive to a more proactive approach is being manifested in myriad ways. Legal innovation clusters into three main strands: service and service delivery; business process and resourcing; and strategy and pricing.

A 2015 survey by the Enterprise Research Centre at Warwick Business School found activity across all three. The survey found that 28 per cent were innovating by providing new and improved services to clients. Almost 37 per cent were innovating around marketing strategies or channels.

Such activity is increasingly becoming a firm buyer expectation, with evidence of innovation around technology use, service delivery and operating models, appearing as criteria for panel firm selections.

In response, we are seeing firms harness opportunities such as the analysis of big data to know and service clients better in a way that differentiates their offering beyond pure legal expertise.

The legal sector’s market size and profitability make it an attractive target for new entrants. As such, new forms of competition have emerged from within and outside the profession, players such as accountants, consultancy firms and tech startups are now all in this space.

In summary, I believe that, in terms of the adoption curve, innovation in legal services now sits firmly within the “early-majority” category. Legal innovation is finally going mainstream.

This offers immense opportunities for solicitors, their clients and those from outside the legal sector who can work with them. We will look to use our unique perspective across the sector to support solicitors to find these opportunities and find the technology and partners they need to succeed.

As for robots replacing lawyers, I’ll give Asimov the final word: “Do no fear computers, fear the lack of them.”