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In her opening words to the LTFH Report, ILTA Executive Director, Randi Mayes said:  ‘There’s no shortage of quotes about the future, and as I was immersed in the narrative of this report, Yogi Berra’s witticism, “The future ain’t what it used to be,” kept coming to mind. Fasten your seatbelts, kids . . . or better yet, please allow the robotic driving assistant to fasten your seatbelts. We’re in for an exhilarating ride. 

We’ve all been banging on about technology and how it’s going to chance the legal sector but let’s be honest… when most law firms are struggling to even think about CRM, let alone do it, is a report that talks about cloud computing, artificial intelligence and virtual worlds really that important?  Is it actually going to make any difference to how firms go about their daily lives?  In truth?  If they’ve got any sense then yes.  It is.  It’s one of the most thought-provoking reports that’s come out of this sector for years and, here at EC Towers, we’re just a little bit envious that we didn’t get asked to take part.

Over the next few weeks, Elephant Creative Managing Director, Helen Hammond, is going to review the report (which weighs in at a whopping 171 pages and you can see, in full, here), drawing out the key points, case studies and things to consider.  Although these articles will take a fundamentally marketing and business development slant, you will start to see that in the world of legal technology it’s less about the internal admin and support functions and more about having a strategic approach to improving client value.

About the report, what it aims to achieve and how they did it

The Legal Technology Future Horizons foresight research study (ED: more words in the title = more credible study) was commissioned by the International Legal Technology Association (ILTA) and undertaken by Fast Future Research between January 2013 and March 2014.  Their collective aim was to explore how advances in IT could impact on the legal profession over the next decade.  They spent a lot of time talking to law firms (and the people in them) both in meetings and through two surveys.  The first survey looked at the ways firms were using IT within the business.  This received 499 responses. 72% of the respondents were from the legal sector and included lawyers as well as professional staff from finance, HR, IT and other support functions. Responses were received from 29 countries, with the two largest groups coming from North America (78%) and Europe (15%), followed by Australasia, Asia and the Middle East.  The other survey looked at establishing a timeline for emerging technology.  They received 223 responses, 61% of which came from the legal industry.  Responses were received from 22 countries, predominantly from North America (76%) and Europe (14%). Additional responses were received from Australasia, Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

Background to the study

It makes sense, to me, to let the report explain this one: ‘…it is increasingly clear that technology-enabled disruption could be the single biggest issue for the [legal] sector over the next decade.  IT is expected to facilitate the emergence of new strategies, delivery approaches and business models; it will enable the transformation of existing firms and pave the way for new entrants. The physical and digital world are becoming interdependent, blending to create a new phenomenon, one we are just beginning to understand. Most accept that, in the future, neither the physical world nor the digital world will be sufficient by itself to fulfil our needs’.

So, do we agree?  The report goes into quite some depth to challenge this statement and prove the ways in which firms can and should embrace technology for the future… no… scratch that… are going to blinking well have to, if they want to survive.  In truth, some of the results were rather terrifying (as it delved into memory patches and brain-controlling systems…) but the underlying, six critical issues were irrefutable:

  1. The pace of technology (and the disruptive effect this has) means that firms have an increasing challenge to face in embracing training at the pace required to achieve strategic potential.
  2. Responsiveness to client needs around value, speed, innovation and security are going to be the main differentiators for firms, rather than knowhow and expertise.
  3. Industry level forces (such as intensifying competition, changing firm structures, business models, new entrants and a heightened talent agenda) will only add to the pressure to differentiate through the use of IT.
  4. The impacts of consumerism, commoditisation, automation and the pursuit of optimal firm scale will also impact on the use of IT with those that respond well stealing a march on those that don’t.
  5. Using IT to respond quickly to the opportunity and competitive challenges presented by emerging economies will be a key differentiator for clients.
  6. And, in the end… the continual change that seems to be inevitable will put greater pressure on firms to stand out through differentiation. 

But what does this actually mean in plain English?  You are going to be judged not on your legal expertise (which clients will increasingly take as read) but on the ways you used IT to:

  1. Make the client the priority
  2. Enhance the productivity, strategic insight and impact of your lawyers
  3. Re-engineer the process of how you do work to make it more streamlined – including commoditisation
  4. Support client-focused innovation 

Have you noticed anything in those four?  They’re all about adding value to the client.  Although the report does reference profitability and the reduction of costs, the clear emphasis was on the need to increase client value (with increased client expectations, in the face of consumer IT developments, being a major factor).  In short, clients want a legal services provider to provide effective and flexible service offerings that reflect the constantly changing technological reality shaping their personal and business lives.

By its own admission, the legal sector has historically seen itself as a slow mover and cautious adopter of IT innovations.  We’ve tended to follow, rather than lead.  But this is changing, not least because clients are demanding it – making their expectations clear to all of their professional services partners.

91% of those surveyed expect the transparency of the legal process to increase as a result of client demands.  Artificial Intelligence (AI) is seen as a potential long- term game changer for the legal sector, with 88% agreeing that AI advisers and helper apps will structure legal documents and check the content generated by lawyers.  And 73% agree or strongly agree that the capacity for rapid IT-enabled innovation will be a critical differentiator for law firms in the future.

The research states that the decade ahead (for legal services) will be shaped by developments that enhance mobility, personalisation and ease of use.  Hence, supporting technologies expected to be adopted by the pioneers in the sector include cloud solutions, use of social media tools and analytics, personalised displays, collaborative document and knowledge management environments and courtroom dashboards.  Enablers of these solutions will include gesture recognition, finger tracking, the intelligent Web, remote presence and 5G communications.  Natural language interfaces, machine vision and machine learning are expected to be the most commonly adopted applications in the near to medium term.

Scared now?  We were, by this point.  But where does this leave you and your firm?  The report suggests that firms will fall into one of four categories:

  • Business Innovators –firms with a strong culture for adopting new practices as well as a supported, excellent IT service internally and a great bunch of IT-literate lawyers.
  • Survivors – Little’s changed here in a while… they have low expectations of what they’ll get and deliver in return.  They invest very little in IT.
  • Seat warmers – They understand what they are meant to be doing but are frustrated by a limited IT infrastructure and they’re eternally spending money on external solutions whilst they wait for the internal team to be replaced.
  • Frustrated superheros – They have a great IT team but they are continually frustrated by the management not wanting to go beyond basic IT service delivery. 

In the next article (to be published on Thursday 10th July) we’ll look at the areas the report feels you should be worrying about… NOW!