Lee Waters AM reflects on the issues automation raises for legal firms in Wales
The business model of local family solicitors is imploding. Many of the profit making functions that have formed the bread and butter of law firms are being automated, but lawyers are proving slow to adapt to their new digital competitors.
“In 50 years, the customer experience at most law firms has barely changed” Law Technology Today recently suggested. And yet the expectations of consumers has been reset by the likes of Google and Amazon, where information is freely available and services tailored to the customer are available quickly – and are mostly automated.
If you can do your own will online for £19.99 in a flash, why would you pay £150 at a High Street solicitors? As with all automation a digital innovation could well improve the customer experience but it could also wipe out current roles.
The writer Richard Susskind has remarked that automation in the legal sector is a 3-stage process. First, denial that technology will bring about change. Secondly, the increased use of paralegals and outsourcing to cut operating costs. Third and finally, technology no longer aids old practices but substitutes and replaces them. We’re probably somewhere between stages two and three at the moment.
The disruption is coming from startups such as the Welsh firms Hoowla and Properr. For anyone who has bought a house the prospect of upending the stressful and slow conveyancing process is very welcome. Properr say they can automate most of the process of purchasing a property, so instead of weeks it could be done in days, indeed it could be done without the involvement of lawyers altogether. Having been through this process I think this sounds great, but for small solicitors that rely on conveyancing for their bread and butter this could be calamitous.
Hoowla have developed a software platform that handles much of the customer relationship roles currently being done by junior lawyers and paralegals. It allows legal firms of all sizes to manage cases, automate workflows and remove the need for manual input of data. Clients can input their own data and information in their own time, and view progress 24/7. This improves the service for customers and reduces the scope for error, but it removes the need for some of the roles being carried out in law firms. And it demands new working practices of lawyers. The expectation of consumers for a flexible digitised service doesn’t reflect the working practices of most law firms – who remain wedded to paper and manual data entry.
I’m holding a roundtable discussion in the Senedd this morning to bring together law firms, law schools and Government Ministers to consider the implications of this. How can we harness the technology to increase access to justice whilst also building the resilience of high street solicitors to the rapid change to their business model so that they don’t follow the local bank branches into extinction?
There are some 30 small law firms in my Llanelli constituency alone. These kind of small firms often provide one of the only footholds into well paid professions in many of our smaller towns. And in areas where local high streets are already struggling, and services have been withdrawing, the loss of the solicitor’s office is not a welcome prospect.
Some roles such as representing clients, or roles that require regular face to face interaction, will be retained. In most cases, these “higher end” legal firms are city based – in Wales mostly in Cardiff. This potential centralisation of services, perhaps similar in pattern to the retreat of banking infrastructure from rural communities is going to be difficult.
That’s not to say our larger legal firms don’t face threats too, a large proportion of our legal and professional services market in Cardiff serve lower end and back office functions – undertaking high volume, low value work that is ripe for automation.
There are questions about how we are preparing people for this future. Law schools are still producing large numbers of graduates trained for professional legal roles that may not exist in the future. At the same time many of the larger legal firms in the UK, such as Linklaters, are no longer snapping up just the best and brightest law graduates but instead are recruiting graduates for the skills they need, in computer science, data analysis and user research.
This is a challenge for most Universities who are training law students for a world of work that is rapidly disappearing (the same is true for accountancy). An honourable exception is Swansea University where Elwen Evans QC and Dr Chris Marshall have been influential in introducing computer science modules into their law schools and the new Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship in the Law (CIEL). Swansea law school are providing a more diverse range of skills with computational thinking.
This isn’t all doom and gloom – legal services costs have steadily risen over decades whilst in more recent years cuts in legal aid have made accessibility a major social justice issue. Cheaper, automated services could speed up often mundane legal practices, whilst making them cost accessible to more people across Wales. The former Lord Chief Justice, Lord Thomas, has previously expressed concern over the affordability of present legal services and technology has the potential to increase accessibility and affordability for all citizens.
New legal services could also remove much of the stress and hassle of mundane legal services – increasing user satisfaction and restoring trust to the profession. As in so many areas, automating routine and mundane actions will also free up human brains to deal with more complex and difficult issues.
The question for lawmakers and policymakers is what role we have in smoothing the transition?
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