The Importance of Innovation: Why Law Firms Need to Evolve

As technology has become embedded in our daily lives and society has become more fast paced, our expectations on service and responsiveness have changed dramatically. In a world where customers now expect businesses to respond to their emails in just one hour[1], it’s essential that companies are evolving their offer to stay relevant, gain competitive advantage and survive in the ever-changing marketplace.

For businesses to stay in touch with with customers and clients, they should be innovative and always be on the search for ways to revolutionise. However, not all industries have the same experience with change, and innovation may not come quite as naturally to some as it does to others: unfortunately, the legal sector is one of those industries.

For a long time, legal firms have had a set way of working. Believe it or not, there are still many practices with mainly paper-based filing systems. Working to the adage, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’, many in our sector have remained profitable and successful without a focus on change or innovation.

The winds of change

But the pace of technological change in our society has never been so dramatic. At the same time, seismic regulatory shifts in the legal sector are also forcing decades of the ‘business as usual’ approach to be torn up. Now, we have reached a point where it’s critical, if not acutely necessary, that our industry sits up and takes notice.

As changes such as the Jackson reforms make the reliance on claims marketing firms to deliver new leads much more difficult and fixed fees cause firms to balance efficiencies and quality of service, the legal sector is being forced to adopt a more business-minded mentality. In line with this movement, leading lawyers are looking to digital technology as a means to improve processes and practices, be more commercially focused and give clients the customer experience that is expected from an established service based industry.

The case for improved case management

In the main, the legal sector has continued to cling on to increasingly out-dated systems to conduct key day-to-day activities. However, by improving working methods in these areas, and especially those that account for the lion’s share of a lawyer’s time, firms will see a major difference in their efficiencies and capacity. Case management is one prime example.

Historically, a lot of time was absorbed by lawyers manually searching through endless piles of paperwork or waiting for members of staff to come back into the office to get an update on a case. And while computerised case management systems have taken the place of these antiquated practices, many of the programs currently adopted by firms still aren’t fit for purpose or reflective of today’s needs.

With these ‘off-the-peg’ solutions, instead of rifling through paperwork, lawyers now trawl through complicated menus to find documents or follow complex workflow processes to action even simple tasks. Ultimately, by implementing programs that aren’t bespoke to their needs, many firms are becoming slaves to the technology designed to set them free.

But when you think about the slick and intuitive technology we use in our everyday lives, it doesn’t have to be that way. The solutions our industry wants and needs are already out there, it’s just that at present, they aren’t available in a tailored format for our businesses.

Day-in day-out most of us use voice recognition and touch screen technology, whether its asking “Siri” to search Google, put a reminder in our calendar or bring up a map with directions to a chosen destination. Therefore, it’s easy to see how this technology can be applied to legal practice case management allowing lawyers to ask their computer to bring up the case they want, swipe between documents quickly on the screen, or even dictate an email using voice recognition software.

Intuitive systems have the power to reduce the time spent on case management, freeing up capacity to do core legal work and provide the best quality service to clients. In fact, so clear are the benefits to the legal sector that, in the absence of widely available tailored options, more progressive firms are taking the need into their own hands.

By creating their own bespoke systems that are more aligned with the new-model legal practice, these firms are using technology to improve efficiency while providing the exact service their clients need. As well as enabling these businesses to get what they need now, this bespoke route opens the door to future innovation and adaptations so firms can easily incorporate new ideas or changes that occur further down the line.

A more (artificial) intelligent approach

Another emerging technology making inroads into the legal sector is Artificial Intelligence (AI). Having cut its teeth in medical diagnosis and financial services, AI is becoming a more recognised way to reduce human input in favour of greater efficiency and improved accuracy in business analytics and decision making.

Looking outside of our sector, Santander and HSBC for example, recently announced plans to use voice recognition technology in their banking services to improve security. Similarly, wealth management firm Charles Schwab has developed an algorithm that decides where best to invest money according to market changes. AI applications are also being utilised in healthcare systems in both the USA and the UK to assist clinicians with Cancer diagnosis and the predictive analysis of degenerative conditions such as Alzheimers.

Drawing from these learnings and innovative applications, forwarding thinking law firms are now exploring how AI can be used in the legal profession, in particular, looking at its role in reducing time consuming data analysis.

Although still in its infancy, AI could be extremely valuable in assisting lawyers to review large volumes of current and past case work much faster than any human could do alone. By drawing on the vast reserves of legal data available inside law firms and in external databases to find specific precedents or existing case law, such programs could slash research timescales and help lawyers to make quicker, more accurate decisions in the daily course of their work. By removing these laborious elements, lawyers could then instead focus their time on tasks like core legal analysis.

In fact, this approach is being pioneered by a number of US law firms through technology such as ROSS, ‘the world’s first artificially intelligent lawyer’. Developed by IBM and powered by its WATSON AI platform, ROSS enables lawyers to ask questions and be signposted to citations and topical articles from a variety of sources. Going beyond a simple knowledge database, technology such as ROSS uses machine learning to understand legal language, search and collate all available information on cases and provide increasingly sophisticated hypotheses for possible courses of action.

As this technology is still in the early stages of development, only a limited number of UK firms have begun to exploit the vast potential of these AI solutions. However, over the next 12-36 months, it is likely that AI will make waves in the UK legal industry, automating time consuming data analysis and making intelligent legal decisions to assist lawyers.

Used and positioned correctly, this technology will be extremely disruptive to the legal market and for the early adopters who are wise and bold enough to recognise the benefits – plus, have the appropriate company culture to integrate it – AI could be a substantial accelerator for growth.

Focusing on service

New technology such as AI and bespoke case management software have the ability to reduce or remove many needlessly time consuming tasks; time that can be better spent on servicing and supporting clients. But as well as freeing up hours, technology is also an enabler in improving this customer experience and communication between lawyer and client.

The legal process can be overwhelming for clients, so anything that alleviates this stress and improves communication will increase client satisfaction as well as be a key differentiator.

Although many law firms ‘went digital’ years ago, currently very few legal services are actually available online or merely comprise external links to communication services such as Skype or online forms. Similarly, a limited number of legal firms offer end-to-end fully integrated online services. As a result, the legal sector is severely lagging behind industries like insurance and financial services where such online offers are commonplace.

While digital services are sparse within the legal sector, some pioneering firms are already making headway. Specialist workflow systems and processes, such as mobile interface platforms, are being created by these businesses, enabling clients to submit details and receive information about their case from anywhere and on any device. As well as allowing clients to have greater contact with the team handling their case, ensuring they are always informed at all stages, these platforms also make it easier for lawyers to obtain important information about the case. By simplifying processes, such systems improve the client experience but also have a commercial benefit as lawyers can start working on claims within minutes of information being received.

Keeping up with the pace

When it comes to innovation, law firms have, for many years, rested on their laurels. However, in a fast-paced society and with ever-more resourceful, knowledgeable and discerning clients, the sector must evolve to ensure the legal expertise that has been the preserve of our sector remains valuable and relevant, and critically, commercially viable.

As businesses in all sectors evolve to become more service-led, legal firms must too find ways to differentiate their offer and appeal to customers. Undoubtedly, innovation will be key in creating this stand out, building an operational infrastructure and providing a service that’s reflective and befitting of the 21st century.

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[1] Toister Performance Solutions, 2015