Getting Under The Skin Of Legal Tech At Law Firms

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Summary:

  • The pandemic has opened the eyes of many to the benefits of technology, but awareness and adoption of many legal tech tools remains low.
  • With working from home, employee training and investment in basic tech are key considerations.
  • Lawyers need to take more personal responsibility for using technology and understanding their client’s technology expectations of legal services

What were we trying to find out?

In 2021 LITIG,  the UK’s leading industry group for Legal IT and Innovation professionals, ran a survey to explore attitudes and trends in relation to Legal IT and Innovation.  For the first time, the survey really starts to get under the skin of why the adoption of technology at law firms is not keeping up with the rhetoric. The detailed evidence on use and adoption is fascinating and hugely useful for anyone driving legal tech adoption and innovation in a law firm or legal function. 

The survey looked in detail at the impact of remote working; taking innovation to clients; the technology available; and investment.  Of the 1,491 respondents, 864 were fee earners (31% were partners) and 627 were in business services (40% were either a manager or director), showing senior interest and engagement with this as a topic.

Remote working

The research highlighted two divergent opinions on remote working.  Overall, 80% of those responding thought that working from home (WFH) was either the same as or better than working in the office.  However, a significant minority of partners (40%) considered working from home as having a negative impact on working practices.  The business services professionals were the most positive about the impact of WFH.

One issue that the research highlighted very clearly and has largely been ignored in the WFH debate is staff development. Over 80% of respondents felt that both informal learning and the development of junior lawyers were impacted by WFH.  Similarly, over 50% of respondents felt that client relationships, team management and business development were all impacted by WFH.

One interesting result was that while 25% of respondents thought that building client relationships had suffered, 22% thought that client communication had improved. The fact that nearly 100% of partners and senior lawyers were aware of and used virtual meeting technology is probably the clearest indication that Covid created a seismic change in how lawyers communicate – a change that will continue rather than reverse.

When asked about the priorities for future investment, the most selected answers were those around better home-working equipment (19% of respondents picked this as the first choice for investment priority), better use of the tech and tools already in place and better training.  This was especially the view for more junior members of staff.

For many readers, the views on WFH will be no surprise, but it does indicate that the wide-scale adoption of WFH may not be as smooth as some in government would have us think.

Taking innovation to clients

The survey also highlighted a clear disconnect between how a firm’s technology fits with their clients’ needs.  Just 28% of respondents agreed that they fully understand how their clients were using technology and innovation tools in their roles. And just 34% believed that their firm had a clear culture of continual innovation in how we service clients. My conclusion is that firms are committed to innovation, but should take a little more time to listen to and understand their clients’ challenges and expectations.

Some will question whether it really matters how your clients are using technology / what their challenges are. I would argue, very strongly yes.  Understanding our clients, the technology they use, what their challenges are and how they work is a key part of knowing our clients and providing our services in the way that best fits them.  Whilst many in-house legal teams report constrained budgets and headcount restrictions, if firms can understand and help their clients use technology (or even provide some technology uplift/support) to work smarter then that will set firms apart.  

When asked why they are not personally taking technology and innovation ideas to clients, almost half of the respondents said: “No real client pressure to change” was the main reason.  Of course, that doesn’t mean that desire for change isn’t there. 

Innovation alone is of little benefit unless it can support the practical delivery of legal services and ultimately the bottom line.  Whilst all areas of innovation were seen as important, “Pricing Innovation” was seen as the top priority for innovation, followed by “Technology innovation”.  Partners, in particular, placed  higher importance on the ‘outward-facing’ innovation focus of pricing, resourcing and technology topics above the ‘inward-facing innovation topics such as knowledge sharing and legal work processes. The conclusion from this is that partners are perhaps the most sensitive to key market-facing differentiators – innovations that help them stand out and this highlights how technology and innovation have come to the fore in terms of making a firm more competitive.

Using tech in practice

After taking the temperature of how firms are bringing tech and innovation to clients, the survey aimed to find out what types of tools were available at firms.  There are some clear knowledge gaps.  Among partners, on average only 50% are aware of the technology tools that are available within a firm – and this drops to as low as 4% for some categories of tech tools.  There is definitely scope to improve how we all communicate about the tools we all have and their benefits, to drive adoption.

One of the key elements of this part of the research was to dive into specific categories of tools that are available, whether people used those tools personally and how useful the tools are perceived to be – essentially driving at the heart of every firm’s tech adoption challenges. 

Whilst the level of satisfaction with tools is generally good, there is clearly some way to go in terms of adoption and demonstrating value.  The following graph shows a view of all the categories of tools, their availability and perceived usefulness:

Chart by Litig: Reported availability, usage and usefulness
Chart by Litig: Reported availability, usage and usefulness

The research highlighted some key areas to work on: from demonstrating better use cases (particularly with the newer legal tech tools such as AI/Machine Learning and Transaction Management for example); to opportunities to demonstrate better usage (such as with Document Automation and eDisclosure that have been available for a number of years); to those technologies that have been more widely available but lawyers and business services teams do not personally see the value (including CRM and knowledge management systems).

Why are technologies not being used?

Finally, the survey looked at why tech tools that were reported as being available were not being used. From the research, we can see that tech adoption varies widely depending on the type of tool.  For example, virtual meeting technologies are used by 96% of people (and one might wonder where the other 4% have been over the last 18 months!) but only 5% of people have used AI/Machine learning document review tools.  

The key findings were:

  • Many users (56% on average) do not use a tool because they believe that it is not relevant to their role, supporting the idea that we need to do a better job of identifying and promoting use cases that different groups of people recognise; and
  • A significant number of users (14%) say they lack the training or confidence to use the tools, which supports the case for greater investment in teams to help our lawyers and business services teams use the tech tools in practice; and
  • A similar proportion (16% on average) say they don’t use tools because of limited perceived benefits, supporting the idea that we need to do a better job of demonstrating value and benefits.

I have seen a massive leap forward in terms of the adoption of technology over the last 18 months – virtual meeting and collaboration technologies and electronic signature tools are the obvious examples. However, challenges still exist. 

What the research means for firms

It is easy to be seduced by the idea that technology can somehow magically deliver major benefits to a business.  Partners (and clients) are hungry for technology and automation solutions to their challenges.

The tools exist, and with the right focus (or set of circumstances – as we have seen with the pandemic), it is possible to show significant benefits and return on investment.  However, without these “hard yards” on use cases, adoption, customisation and benefits measurement, it is difficult to see how firms will demonstrate significant returns on their investments.

It is also interesting that good technology can mitigate some of the negative impacts of widespread remote working, but that has to go hand-in-hand with the right culture, attention to how training and mentoring is done effectively and all of the business skills around facilitating meetings, managing remote teams are so important.

Those driving the firm’s innovation message need to be cognisant of the client’s mindset around change, where they are on their own digitisation journey and their aspirations on tech use and adoption for their legal work. 

Firms need to think carefully about how to help their lawyers and business services teams feel more connected to the firm’s tech/innovation strategy and messaging – with a goal of helping everyone feel personally involved and responsible for talking about and adopting technology to support their work.

About the author: John Craske is a Legal IT Innovators Group (LITIG) Board Member and Head of Innovation & Legal Operations at CMS UK. 

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