Raising The Bar: Innovation In Legal

Bringing innovation to a very traditional profession

The legal services sector is not famed for its cutting edge nature. With the gravity and complexity of the issues at hand, legal professionals often feel safer using tried and tested methods to get the job done. Experimenting with new technology, pursuing different ways of working and breaking old habits is understandably daunting when clients demand reliable, dependable results, and pay a lot of money for the privilege…

But change is coming. The legal sector may be somewhat slow to adapt, but law firms cannot afford to fall behind. Digital technology has created new markets, which businesses need lawyers to help them negotiate. Clients are demanding faster and more technology focussed solutions, and new generations of legal employees themselves have vastly different expectations to those who came before.

So how exactly can a law firm not only negotiate these challenges, but turn them into opportunities to win business and transform their own operations for the better? D/SRUPTION spoke to Lucy Dillon, Dave Pulice, and Alex Smith of international law firm Reed Smith, to find out.

Access to information

If there’s one thing that is synonymous with legal, it’s information. Lawyers need access to information to do their jobs, whether that be legal or business research, or knowledge about a client. According to Lucy Dillon, Reed Smith’s Chief Knowledge Officer, the way this information is now delivered is one of the most obvious examples of digital transformation in the legal sector.

“Over the last 10 years or so, technology has become absolutely pivotal to the role of the Knowledge team,” she says. “Using technology to deliver that information, that insight – internally, through our own networks – but also to our clients, has become absolutely paramount.”

“Of course, innovation has become this buzzword in industry. It can mean absolutely anything to anybody. But what we’re finding is what innovation means within a law firm is all about delivering better, faster, new services to clients. And there is always a knowledge element to that. Innovation and knowledge sit very neatly together, which is why we have a team of innovators who sit within the Knowledge team.”

For Dave Pulice, Director of Practice Innovation at Reed Smith, technology can play an important role in improving the delivery of legal services. His team pursues process improvement in the firm, reengineering workflows to make them more efficient, and automating where possible.

“What we consider to be innovation is what we’re able to implement,” he says. “There’s a difference between having an idea about something – how a process should work and how technology should interact with our lawyers – but then there’s the reality of making it work. That’s where my team has been really successful working with our attorneys, but even more importantly, working with our clients, to customise a solution to their needs.”

A culture of co-design

The relationship between a law firm and its clients is unique. Establishing trust and understanding is key to securing initial business, but also enables firms to add value for a client and anticipate their ongoing legal needs. According to Pulice, it is crucial for legal professionals to work with the client, to build up a picture of their circumstances, goals and challenges, and then adapt to the situation.

“What we’re finding is every client is different, every situation is different,” he says. “Often the expectation goes beyond just the delivery of legal services and it goes into primarily reporting to their business structure. We have to wear quite a few hats, depending on the circumstance – whether it’s process designer, process engineer, product designer, UI or UX engineer – to try to figure out what the specific need is and then help customise that tool to that need so it becomes a useful and viable product.”

This culture of co-design is central to the work of Alex Smith, the Manager of Reed Smith’s Innovation Hubs. Launched in 2016, these New York and London based spaces are designed to bring together clients and internal members of the business, to test new technologies and enhance working practices.

“We are really trying to build that culture of co-design – actually working and talking and building things with clients,” Smith says, “because there’s a lot of change going on. We are trying to understand what our clients are doing, and the pressures the legal team are under. This allows us to come up with innovations, service changes, tweaks – or even just having a conversation and consulting on how they could go about building a culture of change.”

Building the future

For any business, securing a culture of change in the long term means bringing younger employees along on the journey. Although younger generations are often perceived as being more comfortable with technology than their older counterparts, Smith has found that this is not always actually the case.

“We’ve done a lot of work here at Reed Smith through the Hub and Dave’s Practice Innovation team around future lawyers, to build that next generation coming through. As digital natives, they are supposed to be enthused by technology, but things don’t always quite follow that track,” he says.

Lucy Dillon agrees.

“One of the things that we’re finding when we speak to students,” she notes, “whether they’re coming in at a pre interview stage to find out a little bit more about the law, or when they’re actually beginning their careers here – is that the fear of the impact of technology on their roles is very acute. So a lot of what we do is reassure them.”

“Getting them involved at an early stage to really understand the implications of technological change is a really good thing. This has happened before, it’s not the first time there’s been a technology revolution in the legal profession, but now everybody’s read the press about AI and the impact it’s going to have. What we found is some very low level, repetitive work does go. But it generates some really interesting work that we can’t do when things are all on paper and you can’t do any analytics.”

Technology therefore not only relieves employees of the more boring, repetitive aspects of their work, it also enables them to deliver higher value service to their clients. Educating the workforce about these benefits is extremely important, as is making them receptive to change from the moment they join the firm.

“We want to give people exposure early in their careers or even before they start their career here, with how we go about doing things differently,” Smith says. “Then when they join they can be the eyes within practice, they can work with Dave’s team very early on to start to improve things. And sometimes these things don’t have to be big. They can be nudges, or changes or adopting existing technology.”

From humble beginnings…

When it comes to purely technological innovations, it’s fair to say that the legal sector hasn’t seen any wild transformations. In contrast to populist tools such as Robot Lawyer LISA, and the notorious DoNotPay chatbot, legacy law firms have typically had little recourse to the disruptive technologies being applied in other industries. Why? Lucy Dillon attributes this to the document based nature of the business.

“There’s a very confidential relationship between the client and the lawyer and it hasn’t really leant itself to any technology need,” she says, “because on the whole, it is document based. Once you’ve got a computer – the system that can produce, print and send documents very quickly – other technology needs have been very limited. What we sell is our knowledge – how that is delivered is through a document, and so far, there have only been so many ways you can speed up the production of a document.”

However, technology is now starting to appear which enables a lot more to be done with the written word. Digital documents placed in connected systems enable lawyers to make links between discrete pieces of information, speeding up the delivery of legal advice and making it possible to alter overall business models.

Unfortunately setbacks remain, as Dillon notes, namely in the form of change management challenges with clients.

“Delivering these developments is still not as fast as we would all like. There’s a whole change management piece, which I think law firms are up for. I don’t think clients are as demanding as they could be in terms of technology, but that is evolving.”

For Alex Smith, any change – technological or otherwise – should fundamentally aim to empower Reed Smith’s main client, the in house legal teams at large corporates.

“When someone goes in house from a private practice firm, their hardest task is trying to make themselves relevant to the business,” he states. “And the legal team being relevant to the business is a massive driver for in house legal. When the GC (General Counsel) goes through our system and as a result can report upwards on demand, that’s empowering them within their own business. Then they can go out and start to create this culture of innovation.”

“We have a lot of conversations at the moment around this movement called legal operations. Companies are trying to put groups like Dave’s Practice Innovation team into their in house teams. They’re coming to us saying, ‘How did you do it? We’ve got a team of 400 in house lawyers and where do we start?’ There’s loads of vendors throwing all this technology at them, and they don’t know how to build that culture. That’s where we have some our biggest successes, they are around empowering those people to actually start to make change happen.”

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