Traditional law firms need to embrace technology to survive

Your average consumer could be forgiven for thinking that the technology revolution has largely passed the legal profession by.

Your average consumer could be forgiven for thinking that the technology revolution has largely passed the legal profession by.

Whereas many of us now run our lives virtually – from shopping to banking to networking – the model for legal services is still pretty traditional. The sad fact is that some lawyers don’t even want to give advice via email, never mind explore the real potential of technology.

But this is slowly changing – and a good thing too. If lawyers really are about providing access to justice, then technology, if used properly, can not only make this easier, it can deliver solutions in ways we are only just starting to understand.

The pressures for change are coming from all around. The Legal Services Act will allow new providers to enter the market. These new providers will be responding to demand from consumers for faster, better and cheaper services. And many of these consumers will be from a generation that expects to be able to access services online. The balance of authority is clearly shifting away from the traditional grey-haired men in suits.

So can technology improve legal services? There’s no doubt it can speed up the process for high-volume, low-value work, such as conveyancing and personal injury. It also enables consumers to get legal advice when and where they want it – through virtual call centres, podcasts and by providing basic legal documents online.

This means basic legal advice is standardised to represent best practice and it democratises the whole legal process. No longer is it only available to those who can pay, but to anyone with access to the internet.

This doesn’t mean there won’t be a need for specialists – it just means consumers can start to take control of their own legal needs for the first time. The trick will be to make sure that this triage system doesn’t miss complex problems that need more bespoke solutions, such as spotting when someone needs inheritance tax advice when making an online will.

A further challenge is that this revolution will have a dramatic impact on how lawyers attract new business and get paid. Relying on referrals, word of mouth or listings in the Yellow Pages won’t be enough, and firms will have to embrace devices such as viral advertising and search engine optimisation as ways of getting clients through their virtual door. But the chances are it goes even further than this. We’ve probably already gone beyond Tesco law, and the future for buying and selling legal advice will look very different in ways we can’t predict – just as no one could predict the impact of MySpace or Facebook. A salutary example of a failure to face up to seismic change is the music industry, which is finally moving on from the traditional format of signing artists, making records and selling them. Instead the industry is now looking to give music away for free, but with advertising built in to replace the lost revenue.

All of this presents a frightening threat, but also an exciting opportunity for law firms prepared to innovate. There are of course potential pitfalls. Technology can magnify mistakes, and one small error can be copied thousands of times. And it does fundamentally change the lawyer-client relationship in ways that may not all be beneficial.

But the main stumbling block may be the ability of the profession to adapt. If the sexy, youth-orientated music industry was slow to react, how then will the stereotypical fuddy-duddies of the legal profession fare – much less their regulators?If, as the Solicitors Regulation Authority says, law firms really do have to wait until 2012 to take advantage of the Legal Services Act, there is a danger the profession may get left behind. And while most agree that the increase in competition will be good for access to justice,this will not be the case if law firms are squeezed out completely.

Neil Kinsella, managing partner, Russell Jones & Walker