What is the impact of COVID-19 on legal tech projects, and how should law firms look to come out of lockdown stronger?
The need for legal tech innovation has received a lot of attention since COVID-19 put us all into lockdown, but most of the discourse has been focused on working from home, video conferencing and rhetoric about the rise of the ‘virtual law firm of the future’.
This got me thinking about the future of traditional law firms…
- What are existing law firms doing now to ensure their future success?
- Does COVID-19 mean that all other existing legal tech projects should go on hold?
- Is now a good time to start a new project?
In this article we address these questions and provide some pointers for law firms and in-house legal teams about moving forwards in a time when the majority of the world is standing still.
A Burning Platform: Is Legal Tech Innovation Already Here?
New circumstances require new ways of thinking and working. For savvy firms there are novel opportunities to use this time to set themselves up for success. For years, those of us involved in driving change and innovation in legal services have talked about the need for a ‘burning platform’ (a metaphor for something that provides an urgent driver for radical change).
Has that burning platform finally arrived?
Well, yes and no.
There is certainly a burning platform for the most obvious technologies such as video conferencing, but many articles have been written already on this, and most companies probably have this in place by now. Generally I think COVID-19 will also open the door further for cloud hosting too, but I want to touch on some of the more subtle (potential) beneficiaries.
Automation, Data Analytics & Document Management Tech
The myriad of technologies we all used to talk about such as document automation, contract lifecycle management (CLM), document management, and data analytics still have the same benefits they always did. Not to mention the non-‘legal tech’ innovations such as LPM and general process improvement/design thinking.
Some of these legal tech projects were put on hold or cancelled altogether. Few new projects are starting. Perhaps many legal tech projects are considered to be ‘non-essential’, but are they really? I have seen a recent upswing in demand, but it is still early days.
Lockdown for many has been #boring and I think it is a very apt time to #bringbackboring in legal tech, as championed by disrupters and thought leaders in the industry such as iManage’s Global RAVN Product Lead – Alex G Smith. #bringbackboring is about focusing on legal tech and process re-engineering techniques which may not receive the hype of AI/Blockchain but can deliver real, measurable benefits.
In the wake of COVID-19, does Innovative Legal Tech provide an Opportunity to Gain a Competitive Advantage?
Whether you think so or not, these trends offer the opportunity for firms who are thinking about the medium to long term to gain a competitive advantage by turning some focus during the current circumstances to advancing these supposedly ‘non – essential’ projects. A little can go a long way when it comes to legal innovation.
I know from experience that document automation is massively under-utilised across the majority of law firms. I’m not talking about whether it’s mentioned in marketing materials – I’m talking about the proportion of documents which have been automated vs those being manually drafted.
Document automation is such a low hanging fruit (easy to implement if you know how) and yet many firms have only automated a small fraction of their precedent banks, if at all. A little can go a long way and if you know what you are doing, it doesn’t take much to catch up with and overtake the competition.
Use legal tech to boost workforce satisfaction and productivity
According to the Legal IT Insider, a survey by Atlas Cloud of British working habits since the COVID-19 lockdown began has found that 56% of workers (including those in the legal profession) feel their company should have been doing more to help them work productively. This hints at an opportunity – a recognition of the difficulties of working from home and a general willingness to adopt change.
Here’s another example from Twitter of the challenge/opportunity:
Above is a very personal example of the current drive for efficiency to enable one to focus on what is important, but we must be careful not to oversimplify the impacts of COVID-19 on adoption of new legal tech.
Analysing the opportunities and challenges faced by the people involved in legal tech projects can be complex, and it can be dangerous to generalise because everyone’s experience of the current situation (and their openness to change) will be different. However, there are some general observations I have come across through recent conversations:
The Opportunities and Challenges Facing Technology in the Legal Industry
Implementing legal tech projects can be complex – and COVID-19 has not made it any simpler. People face different experiences and challenges, so over-generalising response to innovation, new technology and openness to change should be treated carefully.
Some general observations I’ve come across during recent conversations with individuals in the industry:
Opportunities for Change at the Individual Level
- More lawyers and legal project managers than usual have additional free time as a result of fewer client projects. Focus can be redirected towards important non-essential projects.
- Not having to commute (or meet clients for lunch!) will free up lawyers’ time further.
- The heavier reliance on legal tech will increase lawyers’ openness to it. The spotlight on legal tech may never shine brighter.
- Being isolated highlights the importance of collaboration. Finding the related legal tech tools to work together virtually has taken centre stage.
Challenges for Change at the Individual Level
- Where large scale furloughs have occurred lawyers left covering for their colleagues can be overworked.
- Families where both parents work may have little or no childcare and are having to balance work with homeschooling and looking after their children 24/7. In this situation ‘extra-curricular’ work projects are likely low on their list of priorities.
- General anxiety and the huge changes already occurring in people’s lives may make them psychologically resistant to further disruption at this time. Some people just aren’t listening, and it’s understandable that many are focusing on their own mental health and family above all else.
- Free time may fluctuate so it may be beneficial to have a pool of people involved in a project to help keep things moving continuously.
Business Drivers for Legal Technology Change
According to the 2020 Wolters Kluwer Future Ready Lawyer Report, 82% of corporate lawyers say it’s important that the law firms they work with properly leverage technology. If the psychology, happiness, or productivity of your people aren’t convincing reasons enough to adopt technology, there are strong business drivers too.
Now is the opportunity to get ahead of the competition and prepare so that when lockdown completely ends, you have a competitive advantage over other law firms.
In fact, Ken Crutchfield, Vice President and General Manager of Legal Markets at Wolters Kluwer Legal & Regulatory U.S, believes that: “Law firms will need to continue to embrace innovation and automation, including innovation that may come from other industries…An innovative law firm will look to serve their clients more effectively by leveraging more technology in advising clients”.
By harnessing legal tech, firms have the ability to increase efficiency, accuracy and profitability while also providing the client with a high-standard of service that enables business to flourish.
Legal Digital Transformation
A recent article by Joanna Goodman in the Law Society Gazette articulates the ever-increasing importance of digital transformation in legal tech.
In particular, Joanna cites Isabel Parker, former chief legal innovation officer at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, who says that: “the law firms that ‘win’ will be those that use the momentum created by COVID-19 to commit to a reallocation of capital to digital transformation”. She goes on to point out that: “their [law firms] clients are already doing this – digital is an integral part of most corporations’ strategies”.
Peter Krakaur, Vice President of Legal Business Solutions at UnitedLex agrees that “In our evolving digital landscape, firms need to invest wisely, intentionally, and vigorously.”
A Divide in Law Firm Leaders’ Thinking
Legal tech innovation has it’s benefits, but there’s a clear divide in current law firm leader’s thinking. Leaders are torn between focussing on short-term issues, like cash flow and survival, and directing attention to long-term and strategic thinking.
Since the start of the pandmeic, I’ve spoken to a range of senior execs at different firms and the savvy leaders are the ones who are actively looking beyond lockdown. Not only has this mindset allowed execs to see solutions and opportunities throughout lockdown, it has provided clearer direction for their firm post-lockdown too.
For example David Hymers, Head of IT at Wedlake Bell LLP, understands that “Adopting document automation at scale could be a game changer in terms of making our legal teams more productive”. Every legal tech project at Wedlake Bell receives the full backing of their managing partner, which gives them an excellent platform for success.
The Client Perspective on Adopting Legal Tech
Mark Cohen, CEO of Legal Mosaic, highlights the client side of adopting legal innovation, boldly stating “The profession is no longer holding the reins; buyers are. They are already demanding a re-imagination of the legal function. This will shake up legal education, training, workforce, division of labor, delivery models, culture, pricing, use of data, and shift the focus from lawyers to clients/customers.”
Clients are currently more focused on resolving their own COVID-19 related issues. There is greater interest in solutions rather than the process a law firm takes to get there. However, this will change as we come out of lockdown (and possibly into recession). Cost pressures and competition will rise, as will more sophisticated clients’ demands from their law firms. I predict the old ‘more for less’ adage will return with a vengeance.
How Will Clients Respond to Innovative Legal Tech?
The 2020 Wolters Kluwer Future Ready Lawyer Report found that within three years, 81% of corporate legal departments will make a point of asking firms what technology they use to ensure legal projects progress more productively.
From my experience of working on client pitches for international law firms, the majority of large corporate clients already do this. For that reason, I would even go a step further and predict legal clients will not just want to know what legal tech the law firms use – they will assess the law firm in a much more critical and sophisticated manner.
Clients will care about the extent that legal tech tools are actually used, they will want data on the effectiveness of how people, process and ‘best in breed’ legal technology are combined to deliver innovative and most importantly, effective, solutions.
For example, a Top 4 UK clearing bank that I worked with were quoted in Legal Business (Issue 278 (Oct/Nov 2017)), saying: “The things that are making a difference to us now are how well firms engage with technology. We recently reviewed one of our lending platforms and the law firm we worked with we chose because of the way their head of technology and their automation team worked to come up with an automated document solution.”
Maria Passemard, Director of Legal Operations & Tech at LOD, notes that “COVID-19 has highlighted to many in-house teams the inefficiencies in their contract management systems. Being in disparate locations without access to hard copies or having docs stored on various drives has made finding contracts to be a time consuming and frustrating process. They now realise more than ever before they need better systems and processes for their contracts”.
The Role of the Law Society
On the 30th June 2020 the Law Society launched its new initiative “Return, Restart and Recovery”. which aims to help the legal profession play its part in getting the economy back on its feet in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Panicos Iordanou, Head of Commercial Development at The Law Society, described how technology is seen as an important part of the “Recovery” phase:
“Technology will play a central role in the recovery and development of the profession and in maintaining England and Wales as a world jurisdiction of choice post-Brexit. It’s crucial that lawyers and their colleagues – as well as entrepreneurs and technologists – are properly supported in driving the development and adoption of technology.”
The new Law Society initiative asks the UK government to invest now in driving the adoption of technologies because of the opportunities it holds for the sector.
The initiative includes asking the government to provide tax incentives for law firms, legal service providers and lawtech start-ups that develop and adopt lawtech, and to extend the eligibility of the Future Fund to lawtech start-ups by relaxing the requirement of a minimum level of £250,000 of seed capital.
How Should Law Firms Look to Come Out of Lockdown Stronger?
There are many opportunities and challenges arising from COVID-19 in regards to legal tech projects, and the idea to #bringbackboring could present a realistic approach as we emerge into the ‘new normal’, but successfully and efficiently operating will require more than just implementing legal tech and expecting results.
We’ve talked about the need to balance short-term challenges with long-term strategic thinking. Now is a good time to sense-check any strategies and legal projects that were put in place pre-COVID-19 to make sure they are still relevant.
When assessing legal tech projects, here are a few questions to ask yourself (and the project team) before getting started:
- Does the project have appropriate business sponsor support and governing committee oversight?
- Does the project have access to the required business and technology talent?
- Do you have sufficient third party resources/support for the project?
- What stage is the project at (i.e. early stages or close to completion)?
- Is the project plan still realistic?
- Do you have ROI forecasts in place (and if so, are they still considered reasonable)?
- Can the project be delivered remotely?
Discover the Next Steps in Your Legal Tech Journey with RLegal
If you need help accelerating existing projects, starting new ones, or are interested in discussing any of the points made in this article, please feel free to contact us.