The law firm model, the more for less challenge and legal techs’ low hanging fruit
2018 has seen the movement known as legal tech gaining momentum, consolidating the growth shown over the last few years. Among lawyers and technologists, and sometimes lawyer-technologists, there is an explosion of meet-ups and conferences, some of them drawing attendees from many different countries, proving the international dimension of the movement. Inevitably, there is also hype and buzzwords.
In some cases, the meeting between law and technology has already made an impact, creating new models and tangible results; that is the case of data protection, where a new awareness on personal data and their role in today’s digital world has led to a new discipline and related professional competences.
In some other areas, we are still in the ‘research and development’ moment: there is research, debate, and the interaction between lawyers and technologists is in full swing; however, we still need to wait for some time before a compelling product is released and widely adopted in legal practice. An example is the blockchain scene: work in progress.
In short, the legal tech movement is blossoming, bringing some fresh air in a profession where the appetite for innovation is traditionally low. As the legal sector is eager to get rid of the unflattering fame of being technology-averse, I try to draw some conclusions on the process so far; I would start by asking:
What is legal tech all about? Can we find any particular underlying factor pushing for innovation in Law?
While chasing new and shiny cutting-edge technologies, is there any low hanging fruit that we may be missing?
More for less: chasing efficiency
In his seminal book “Tomorrow’s Lawyer” Richard Susskind mentions the “more for less challenge’” that lawyers are facing, including it among the drivers for change in the legal profession: for reasons having to do with the state of the economy, clients are now less willing to spend, yet they expect more results. This trend has led to the effort to contain the costs and improve efficiency in legal service delivery. The client is no longer happy to pay (if he/she ever was) for unproductive costs; the focus is on performance, to deliver at a lower price.
The market now clearly asks for a smarter service.
Susskind also mentions technology as another driver for change in the legal world. In my opinion, the two are linked: as the legal sector tries to increase productivity and meet new and higher standards of efficiency, it naturally gravitates towards technology in search of solutions.
The first victim of the “more for less challenge” is the billable hour: as the focus shifts on the quality of the performance, the billing based on the mere count of the hours spent on a task becomes an outdated method, soon a relic of the past.
Internet and the new workplace
The internet has not only changed the way we work, but it has also redefined the concept of "workplace." The bond between a profession and a physical location (traditionally the one where the professional works and resides) is no longer as strong as it used to be.
Knowledge is accessible like never before in history; information is gathered, processed and exchanged at the speed of light, professionals deliver performances remotely. Lawyers know that and work differently than they did 15 years ago. However, we now want to see whether the wealth of possibilities offered by the internet can lead to the evolution of the traditional law firm; a model that is not ageing very well, as we are going to see.
The law firm and the legal market: current challenges and possible evolution
Besides the billable hour, another model under pressure is the traditional law firm: expensive to run and with high overheads. With fewer resources available, clients now focus primarily on results, and are reluctant to pay for unnecessary extras: this questions the old business model, particularly its sustainability. As law firms face the “more for less challenge”, in many cases fighting for existence, improving productivity while containing the costs is now crucial.
The legal market is articulated in law firms: a fragmented and crowded landscape. Atomized, split into legal practice areas and related professional competences, the market is far from user-friendly. With no legal background, the client has to navigate the sea of lawyers and legal specializations trying to find the right one, for skills and experience, suitable to his/her legal case. Then, make the first contact and arrange a meeting, which requires commuting to the law firm, often more than once. Impractical and time-consuming, when time is indeed money. Using the IT jargon, we could say that much could be done to improve the user experience.
Law firms on the other hand, for the most part, replicate the same strategies, using the same tools, trying to solve the same problems. Think outside the box? We are not quite there yet.
All of this makes the current law firm model expensive and ineffective: it fails to reach many underserved potential clients, creating the contradiction of unmet demand for legal services despite the abundance of lawyers. Much can be done to improve access to legal services, making it more affordable and practical: that will ‘unlock' a demand currently hampered by the old, cumbersome, outdated model and so by the lack of innovation thereof.
Therefore: is there anything technology can do to connect clients and lawyers better, evolving the law firm model to something more advanced and effective?
Law firm 2.0
A possible and viable evolution would be to expand the law firm beyond its physical boundaries, making it less “brick and mortar” more connected and interactive. A network of well-connected law firms, with a shared mission:
make the offer of legal services more accessible to clients.
create the conditions for the interaction between clients and lawyers to take place and thrive.
Law firms will still be there, interconnected and functionally linked to each other, providing a gateway to the legal services offered by the members of the network.
One may ask: what’s the advantage for law firms to join such a network? How to reconcile lawyers’ rather individualistic attitude with a shared enterprise?
A well-structured community, with a broad set of legal competences easily accessible to clients: that would grant to the law firms in the network an outreach they would not have otherwise. Using a metaphor from boxing, the lawyer or small law firm would ‘punch above its weight’ taking advantage from the scale of the network in terms of visibility, while also gaining access to tools and initiatives provided by the network and shared among its components. For example, marketing and communication strategies, internet-based tools: they are expensive to set up and run by a single lawyer or law firm, whereas they become affordable and, most importantly, more effective if jointly undertaken.
The network’s infrastructure needs to be as light as possible, so to contain the costs, and boost the efficiency of the shared enterprise. To this goal, a well designed online platform would suit the network, connecting clients and lawyers, allowing the delivery of legal services online whenever possible. To this goal, a well designed online platform would suit the network, connecting clients and lawyers, allowing the delivery of legal services online whenever possible.
We could think to a practical “user interface” for legal services, facilitating the first contact and the interaction between client and lawyer in a win-win scenario. Clients would quickly make the first contact with a lawyer qualified for the particular case; lawyers, on the other hand, will be more accessible to clients, particularly new ones, and would find convenient to handle online those interactions for which an in-person meeting is not strictly necessary.
Tools designed to connect lawyers and clients are not new though: that is what legal marketplaces do. Their scope is simple, yet their success highlights the growing demand for quick, streamlined access to legal services. The model we envision enhances the legal marketplace and brings it to the next level: not only it would foster the first contact but also handle the interaction that follows up. From a technical standpoint, such model would require to set up, maintain and secure tools for communication, exchange of documents, handle payments: a virtual, shared law firm.
We started our article by asking whether we could find any particular driver behind the blossoming relationship between law and technology. We found that over the years the legal market has changed under the impact of new and less prosperous economic circumstances. With fewer resources available, the market asks for a smarter and more efficient service: an indeed compelling reason for the adoption of technology in the legal sector.
We also made a case for a better connection among law firms through the internet; we saw the benefit for lawyers and clients as well, as the rise of online legal marketplaces shows.
We can conclude that legal tech is not necessarily about fancy new technologies to be (maybe) adopted in a distant future, although a research and development department with that goal would be indeed welcome in the legal sector. An assessment of the critical aspects in today’s legal profession, in the light of the available technology, would lead to craft, test and deploy new tools right away.
In conclusion, we would advocate a practical and realistic approach to the development of technologies for the legal sector, which would require:
A new mindset among the members of the legal community: ready to embrace the change, open to collaboration and new intellectual challenges.
To highlight the flaws and shortcomings in a legal system, and address them right away. Let’s focus on real, pressing issues first, solving real problems: innovation for its own sake is of little use.
Lastly, a new awareness of the law’s mission in our fast-changing society is needed: this, more than any particular new tool, is what will propel the legal sector in the future, strengthening its crucial role for a civilized society.
About the Author
Vincenzo Lalli is the founder of Avvocloud.net, a network of lawyers providing easy access to the Italian market of legal services. He holds a Master's Degree in Law and has worked as lawyer-linguist.
His passion for technology led him to learn to code and gain valuable experience as web developer as well. After finding out about legal tech he devoted himself to it, having the opportunity to integrate his legal background with his passion and experience in IT.
Intro to Avvocloud.net (Italian).