To meet today’s challenging business environment, law firms are looking to ever more sophisticated IT solutions. Whether to bring efficiencies and new service opportunities to law firms, support new, agile ways of working, or fend off growing cyber security threats, more firms are investing in secure, reliable and innovative technology – together with the professionals who understand and can deliver it.
Nor is this drive just internally led. As law-firm clients themselves move more into the digital space they are demanding the same of the firms that represent them. Indeed, opportunities are opening up in whole new areas for law firms with disruptive technology such as driverless cars and the likes of Uber ushering in a wealth of challenges, even demanding fresh legal frameworks.
Today’s law firm is realising that they need to understand what technology can do for the firm, their clients, and the implications more broadly. And if they don’t ‘disrupt’ themselves, then someone else will do it for them: witness the rise of ‘lawtech’ start-ups. Some of these new businesses look to help law firms by offering tech solutions; others look to rival them by offering tech-enabled legal services in their own right.
Start-up community Legal Geek organises meet-ups in London to bring together lawyers, entrepreneurs and ‘techies’ who want to discuss ways that technology can be used to innovate in the legal industry. While their meet-ups include pizza and beer and insist on a no-tie policy, it is no leftfield movement – its recent conference was sponsored by Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, The Law Society and Thomson Reuters.
Recent investments by law firms show how seriously technological innovation is being taken. Pinsent Masons has announced the roll out of an artificial-intelligence-powered commercial contracts solution to help its clients respond to the challenges of Brexit. The artificial intelligence component was developed in-house by its own R&D team. Dentons, meanwhile, is taking a broad look at how technology can change the practice of law, investing in a venture called Nextlaw Labs, a platform focused on developing and deploying new technologies in law.
The FT’s annual report ‘Innovative Lawyers’, noted that the profession has reached a tipping point, with law firms embracing developing their own technology. It is striking that its 2016 shortlist for ‘Legal Innovator of the Year’, included so many using technology to improve legal practice, including Karl Chapman, Chief Executive at Riverview Law, for the development of ‘Kim’, a virtual assistant that helps in-house lawyers manage new instructions and process their work. The overall award went to Charlotte Stalin at Simmons & Simmons for the creation of online service ‘Navigator: Funds’, which provides regulatory guidance to fund manager clients on a subscription basis.
All this reflects our experience at Totum, as we have placed a rising number of senior IT professionals in recent times. A couple of roles we are recruiting for now include a Chief Information Officer and Head of Information Systems and Technology, both with a strong leaning towards IT strategy. We have also seen a significant rise in firms highlighting security as a critical component of the IT leadership role, with the larger firms having specialists in this area.
Together they form a high-calibre IT community playing a pivotal role in driving business goals through technology.
But while there is a growing demand for technology in law, there are challenges. Unlike in tech companies and other industries such as retail, the legal sector is not used to the idea of failure as a way to learn and come up with new ideas. This will take time to overcome. Inroads are being made, with some law firms experimenting with ‘design thinking’, which encourages creativity, the input of multidisciplinary teams, and rapid prototyping.
There has also been an obstacle in that the perception of the IT professional’s role is predominantly one of fire-fighting – making sure internal systems and processes work and what the next upgrade might be. This has taken some time to smash but things are changing as law firms increasingly understand the value a senior IT appointment can bring.
It is an exciting time for law firms, and so too the IT professionals that work with them. However, if the potential is to be fully realised, both sides need to be aware of what the challenges for each other might be. The IT professional needs to really embed with teams across the firm to understand their day-to-day work as well as their business issues. And law-firm leaders need to give their IT leaders space to to do what they do best, allowing them to play a key role in driving strategy through the implementation of the right technology.