Has the pace of legal change accelerated over the last few years or are firms still playing catch-up? The shortlisted firms for The Lawyer Awards (in association with Travelers) gathered ahead of the big night to discuss this and innovation more broadly.

The attendees, who will battle for the Law Firm of the Year award on 29 June, shared best practice around technology and service delivery and discussed whether innovations are purely client-based or also internal technology developments. They also touched on where the imperative for innovation lies.

The pace of change seems quicker when looking at individual firm verticals, but if you look at it on a broader scale the pace is slower, RPC director of knowledge management and capability Andrew Woolfson said. “The legal sector is playing catch-up to the hype,” he added. “It’s one of the sectors which is ripe for wanting to change so that’s why people want to focus on it.”

Shoosmiths information systems director Shane Scott said that coming back to the legal industry after working outside the sector felt like “walking back 10 years”. He added: “There is a certain amount of conservatism, where we have two or three generations [in the legal market] and the first generation is still quite cagey when it comes to new tech, while millennials can work on whatever device at whatever time.”

This conservative attitude means that change is a significant challenge. “We’re still using the lawyer’s favourite means of communication – the  printed-out email with lots of attachments,” Herbert Smith Freehills (HSF) head of knowledge Simone Pearlman said.

Others argued that there is a will to innovate, but little capability to deliver effective innovation. “There isn’t a lack of technology, there is a lack of engineering capability,” Pinsent Masons head of R&D Orlando Conetta said.

“In the legal IT industry many ventures are falling short in that regard. A decade ago, if you were trying to create a case management system off the shelf, what the lawyer would understand as case management workflow would be entirely different from what the technology would support.

“On the other hand, there is legal research that has produced amazing stuff that we have leveraged, but that was focused on one task, which was to create someone that could replace a lawyer. I think that’s unachievable. You can provide a value of a lawyer in different ways to try to automate some of those elements.”

More hype than substance

So how much of tech is hype and how much is reality? Artificial intelligence has been at the forefront of people’s minds, but the concept of using it as a replacement for lawyers is unrealistic, attendees said.

“AI is a bit hyped, it’s not the saviour of all of our problems,” Conetta explained. “AI is a very broad discipline. To use it willy-nilly is a problem. You shouldn’t buy something because it’s AI, you should buy it because it fulfils your needs.”

“We’re in danger of only looking at the benefits for us as lawyers, not the benefits for clients,” Brookes said, adding that lawyers should pay attention to the cost of AI implementation against the expected returns and factor in what their clients may already be using. “There are masses of free things available for clients to use, why should they pay us?”

PwC Legal has technology that allows companies to track where their employees are around the globe easily, Brookes said, which links into tax affairs that clients have in each country. “This is a benefit for us when doing our work but also a benefit for our clients, who have access to that information at any time through our system.”

“Artificial intelligence is a bit hyped, it’s not the saviour of all of our problems. Don’t buy something because it’s AI, buy it because it fulfils your needs”

Pearlman echoed this statement with an example from HSF. “We have seen success with this in Belfast and Perth,” she said. “That’s something that wouldn’t have been possible going back 10 years. We used technology and we adapted and changed. It’s been a huge success. Lawyers have to see something that will have a baseline benefit and a cost benefit.

“I think that’s the difference between lawyers sitting at the firm imagining what the benefit is
to them, and lawyers who can see what the benefit is directly to the client.”

Invest now

During the innovation process, firms’ business development (BD) teams can become invaluable. Stephenson Harwood head of client development Philip Allen said that the easiest avenue to understanding clients is to be more joined up with their BD teams. “All the data sits in silos and the key is to join these up and create CRM systems and dashboards for clients,” he said. “Teams will be able to look at the data and see whether there is a drop-off and find out why.”

Teams can also look at activity with clients and see a pattern for positive instructions. “Is it lunch, lunch, another lunch then golf and afterwards an instruction?” he joked, adding: “You find what works with each client. There are interesting ways to link those data points.”

BD teams are creating more opportunities for their firms, acting as more of a direct sales function. “This can put new people through the door that was traditionally for partners.”

But firms must take care to “separate the signal from the noise”, said Conetta. “You find these patterns and make decisions based on them and they might be misleading.”

A motivator for many firms is the thought that a competitor might innovate before them, Pearlman said. Lawyers who want to drive innovation should use that to their advantage.

Ultimately, it is the responsibility of partners to make the case for investment. According to Woolfson, they can avoid any roadblocks by “narrowing the purpose of the tech innovation”. He advises working with relationship partners to see what kind of conversation they want to have.

“We have got to the stage where people will listen to you,” he said. “If you don’t invest in data, you’re in trouble. Make the case, change the way you do business support and how you do something as a business.”