Digital adoption and the shake-up of legal practice

By Emma Ryan|10 November 2019

As any lawyer knows, utilising technology has become essential in the business of law. But where do you stack up on the rate of adoption in comparison to your peers?

Last year Thomson Reuters, in partnership with Lawyers Weekly, launched the inaugural “Tech and the Law” report, shining a spotlight on how law firms are incorporating technology into their business offering.

What became evident in the findings was a split between those who are taking it up no questions asked, and those who still appear reluctant to do so. What’s more is that despite those who label an understanding in tech as essential to have, the report found just a small amount of respondents actually were equipped with the knowledge to do so, with almost half saying they didn’t receive any legal software or platform training while at university.

Undoubtedly, a lot can change in 12 months and Lawyers Weekly is privy to the industry-wide push coming from entities of all shapes and size encouraging, and in some cases demanding, their legal practitioners to become better in the tech take-up.

In this exclusive feature, Lawyers Weekly spoke to James Jarvis, VP of product design and delivery at Thomson Reuters legal professionals, Asia and emerging markets, on some of the results gathered from the report, how these have changed or remained unchanged since its launch and where to next in the world of all things tech and law.

Smarter and more efficient

In the Tech and the Law report, 42 per cent of respondents indicated they use technology during their working hours – a statistic which Mr Jarvis finds low.

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“When was the last time you met with a lawyer who wasn’t looking at a screen or three screens during your meeting? It might be that the lawyers are using technology more than 42 per cent of the time and not realising it because it works so well they don’t notice it. It could also be that there is a lot of room for improvement,” he explains.

“Anyway, the only way is up! There are a few reasons for this perspective. First, at Thomson Reuters, we follow a design thinking approach to design and iterate our legal solutions. It’s our goal to develop technologies that enable lawyers to work better and achieve the best outcomes for their clients.

“By understanding how lawyers work today we can create new solutions or recreate existing ones to enhance the way the lawyers work. Well-designed legal technology is useful, flexible and transparent. In a sense, we know we are doing a good job when people are using our technology without thinking about the technology.

“Second, with the rise of digital information and associated developments in cloud computing, technology can help lawyers find insights and make decisions faster. As this becomes pervasive then there will be an increased use and emerging dependence on legal technology. I saw a statistic recently that companies embracing big data analytics are making decisions five times faster than companies not using analytics. That’s a big reason why lawyers should be seeking out technology that is designed for the work they do day-to-day.”

Ideal tech

With so many options available, it’s important for legal professionals to be across what service providers are offering and what they aren’t.

Well-designed legal technology needs to take you progressively toward your goals and ultimately help you achieve those goals, according to Mr Jarvis.

“Well-designed legal technology should also be a ‘walk up and use it’ technology that doesn't require you to read through a big doorstop-sized manual to be able to understand the software,” he says.

“For instance, if you think about using your smartphone, very few people would have read any training manuals related to using a smartphone and Thomson Reuters legal technology aims for a similar seamless user experience.

“If the solution is useful and enhances how you work, just like using your smart phone, before you know it there will be a productive habit forming in the way you do certain legal work using well-designed, smart legal tech.

“When it comes to something like Westlaw or Practical Law, we are constantly trying to make our applications more useful, more feature-rich. At the same time, we want to reduce the burden on the user in terms of learning how to interact with it. A well-designed legal technology is one where the benefit to the lawyer is obvious. The more useful the legal solution, the higher the frequency or importance of use by the lawyer.”

More needed on the education front?

As previously stated, despite the perceived role of importance technology has in legal service delivery, there appears to be little being done at a university level to bolster this skill set and capability.

Excluding a few examples, such as those universities and other education providers offering new tech and innovation-specific courses, a fair chunk of respondents (47 per cent) say they never received any legal software of platform training to equip them for the workforce.

“It would be interesting to break down this response and understand when the lawyers went through law school. The law is complex and nuanced – there is so much to learn from a black letter perspective. At the same time, to be ready for practice, the more familiar students are with the tools and what they are used for, the better prepared they will be,” Mr Jarvis says, commenting on the statistic.

“Training aside, we know from working in the start-up community that students are using technology in their coursework and experimenting with coding and analytics. Given the rate digital information is growing, and now much of legal work is with digital information, developing a level of expertise and comfort with technology is essential to every type of knowledge work.

“The more tools students learn – whether we are talking about legal research solutions, workflow automation or technology assisted review – the better off they will when they start to practice. Regardless of the software your firm has in place, your student experience with the solutions will provide familiarity enabling you to adapt quicker as the firm upgrades systems and tools.”

Beyond the norm

Going forward Mr Jarvis notes it’d be great to see more universities offering such courses if they aren’t already, saying the “more exposure and familiarity law students have with legal tech, the better equipped, they should be for practice”.

“We co-design and beta our legal technology with a diverse range of law firms and legal departments. In all of these organisations there is an emerging culture of law plus technology. The best and brightest practitioners keen on testing and improving the software have both a solid knowledge and experience in practicing the law and an interest or exposure to coding and data analysis,” he says.

“At Thomson Reuters we believe law firms and legal departments are seeking to be very data-driven because they know that making data informed decisions, and enabling faster pathways to insights will lead to better decisions.

“For law graduates, having familiarity and skill with a technology that enables you to analyse the data that’s relevant in a matter are going to put you ahead. The challenge is, can those academic institutions have the familiarity and expertise with the tools at the rate of change that the students are being exposed to them?

“Putting another perspective on the table: one source of disruption in law and legal tech will be from students and recent graduates working on the next generation approach to legal tech. We want to encourage and support this type of innovation – the law and access to justice will improve as this innovation leads to new approaches.”

Common pain points

Lack of integration between programs and non-friendly user technology were labelled as pain points in the report, as was poor training on how to use software.

For Mr Jarvis, these respondents aren’t surprising, and offer clear objectives for firms to address.

“These data points are aligned with design thinking and tenets of design and usability. For legal tech to be usable it needs to align with the way lawyers work. To align with how lawyers work, designers of software [must] focus on the lawyer and their goals,” he says.

“At Thomson Reuters, when we set out to design and build a new solution or enhance an existing one, a key question is ‘What is the problem you are trying to solve?’ We want to figure out the best technology and user experience to address that problem. We also want to exclude or drop features from software that don’t align with the work the lawyers are doing.

“Firms and legal departments can adopt this approach into their evaluation. It is grounded [on] empathy – understanding how your lawyers work and focusing on changes that will have the biggest impact will inform choices and acknowledge the contribution of your team.

“Looking beyond what is written on ‘the side of the box’ and understanding the impact on how your lawyers are working can provide the foundation for determining the usefulness and priority of selecting and dropping solutions.

“As you test and start to implement the legal technology, if it’s not working out and delivering improvements, you have to go back to the legal tech company and put this knowledge on the table.”

It’s also essential for firms and legal departments to make sure they’re continuously updating their technology to fit user demand, Mr Jarvis notes.

“We live an ‘age of the app’ where apps that don’t make us happy get the ‘hold and delete’ treatment,” he explains.

“At Thomson Reuters we are passionate about making solutions that are simple to use and improve the way your lawyers work and the outcomes for your client.

If you start using a tool and it’s not useful and not having positive impacts on your business, it’s beneficial to acknowledge this insight and take the next step to address it.

“It’s why, for Thomson Reuters, we launch software and we are never finished. We constantly want to evaluate and iterate the way it works. This comes from ongoing collaboration with lawyers and legal professionals. As soon as we release something we want to iterate it and hone the design and capabilities to be more and more aligned with what the lawyers are trying to achieve.

“Beyond integrations, our perspective on AI in the law is that it requires great R&D or technologists and legal domain experts and user experience professionals. This diversity and co-designing with lawyers [are] all about making the legal tech benefits part of a seamless user experience and that is ultimately reflected in the usage of the solution. We are striving to find the ways to help lawyers work more effectively. So when it comes to the Westlaw experience or the Practical Law, to get value out of the legal technology we are really focused on making it a ‘walk up and use it’ solution.”

Will email still have its place?

While all the glitzy, showy new platforms have appeal in one way or another, one thing that was consistent in the report was that many legal professionals still rely heavily on email.

At Thomson Reuters, the team has spent a lot of time working with lawyers to understand how and why email is so useful.

“The heavy use of email among lawyers is an indicator of usefulness in the context of how lawyers work – it is an environment where they can collaborate and a place to store and update information. At the same time, it’s not necessarily the best solution for lawyer-client collaboration or work product organisation. Have you ever found yourself using the search function to locate critical work product in email?” Mr Jarvis offers.

“Another consideration is that once you put an email out there you lose control over where it goes and what recipients do with the information contained in the communication. As a consequence secure file sharing and collaboration tools are on the rise.

“At some point there will be convergence and consolidation of these tools and until that tipping point is reached lawyers will continue to use email clients and look for integration solutions. Thomson Reuters can help on both fronts: with tools like HighQ in the secure collaboration space and Drafting Assistant and Contract Express which integrate seamlessly with Microsoft Office tools.

“… Well-designed legal technology can offer tremendous benefits to lawyers and the firms and legal departments where they work. Finding the right tools is critical to performance of the craft.

“At Thomson Reuters we’ve been working in the legal industry for over 100 years. We understand that the law is complex and nuanced. We are passionate about working with lawyers so we can focus on opportunities for the latest advances in legal technology to improve how they work. We also just happen to make legal solutions that are simple to use and trustworthy.”

Digital adoption and the shake-up of legal practice
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