02 May 2018  | 
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Resisting technology: ‘Pretty good’ is not good enough

I have just finished a planning call with my two co-chairs for the IBA Building the Law Firm of the Future conference being held in London on 16 November. (Will you be participating?) One of the sessions that we plan is on lawyers and their supposed aversion to change. One constantly hears that lawyers are unduly risk averse and don’t want to change. That they don’t want to adopt technology. That they are luddites who want to continue to practice law the way that they always have and believe it is unreasonable to expect them to change.

Barring an undeniable minority, I wonder how much of this is really true? In my experience, most lawyers get really excited about new technology and other tools that can help them advise their clients better and make their lives easier. There is a proviso, though. The technology / work practice / tool must actually work, exceedingly well.

Lawyers are averse to being sued for malpractice. They are averse to mistakes that harm their clients and ruin their relationships with them and cost their firms money. They are averse to rendering poor quality legal advice and to drawing conclusions from inadequate information. This sometimes leads to tension with clients, especially when lawyers are seen as agents holding back efforts at innovation and transformation by pointing out reasons why what is proposed may be illegal or why more clarity is required. That is their role. If they were to be involved earlier and more deeply in the strategic business processes of the firm, then wasted effort and investment might be avoided but that role would not change.

Business is often messy and uncertain. ‘Ready-fire-aim’ is a perfectly legitimate way to get products out into the market quickly for ‘beta testing’ by consumers. The law, on the other hand, is usually a hard and clear boundary. Those developing tools for lawyers to help their clients remain within that boundary and to deal with the consequences when they or somebody else steps out of them, would do well to consider this when they design tools for lawyers and make decisions about whether those tools are market-ready. Most of the digital tools being used in the market are not yet very good. This will undoubtedly change. Within the next three to five years, we will likely see some of the ‘AI’ tools become reliable and clever enough for mainstream adoption and at that point one can expect that most lawyers will happily use them. Just as one would not like neurosurgeons to use ‘promising but perhaps dangerously unreliable’ tools while conducting their profession, or banks to do the same when handling our funds, so it is right to expect lawyers to have a similar approach.

Technological tools and business models are inextricably linked and at Cambridge Strategy Group, we have recently been exploring the latter in some detail. To do this, we have been building our understanding on the current business model from the ground up. Likewise, our understanding of the pressures on that model and the drivers that will transform it. Our initial thoughts are presented in our paper ‘Thriving at the edge of chaos: AI, blockchain and the digital law firm of the future,’ which we invite you to download and debate with us.

What we are trying to do with this exploration is to develop a thorough, properly substantiated view on what large law firms need to do in the short term in order to prepare for the day in the medium to longer term when the technological tools are ‘good enough.’ The transition away from the people-leveraged ‘Tournament of Lawyers’ model has been under way for some time. Since the global financial crisis, it has accelerated and lawyers have taken great strides in becoming more efficient with the tools at hand. What is still missing are the digital tools that can be leveraged in the same way that junior lawyers could be, to deliver actual legal work. All the law firms currently using machine learning and other ‘AI’ tools are doing to learn more about them and experiment with them and to help mould them into something that is truly useful. This is admirable and necessary. But it is also evidence that far from being luddites, quite a few law firms (from tiny firms to industry leaders) are at the forefront of innovation in this area. Sooner or later, ‘computer aided legal services’ will become a mainstream reality just as ‘computer aided design’ did in architecture, engineering and other design professions. The impact of emerging digital technologies such as AI, blockchain, big data, the Internet of Things and advanced wireless networks (5G and beyond) will drive change in society, client business needs and the law itself in ways that make the need for such tools more urgent. Should reliable quantum computing emerge, that will likely have implications that we cannot begin to imagine.

For now, though, it is probably better to be thought unduly risk averse and resistant to change, if the alternative is to put clients at risk with undue reliance on technologies that are not yet properly proven. Instead, once could:

  • learn more about these emerging technologies and to do that in collaboration with clients so the learning is focused on understanding client legal needs that they are inducing first, then impacts on the firm’s business model
  • be a reasonably early adopter of technology that does prove reliable, especially machine learning technology that takes time to ‘train’
  • use the technology that is already available, as much as is economically and practically sensible.

The transition from a purely people-leveraged law firm business model to one driven by people leveraging advanced digital technology will be as much about structure, culture and systems in general as about the technology itself. There is much that firms can do in the meantime to attend to those, at the same time enhancing efficiency and performance.

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