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Technology has the potential to revolutionise legal services but many law firms remain cautious when it comes to investing. We talk to experts about what the obstacles are, and how junior lawyers should go about making a case for increased use of technology.
Today’s young professionals engage with technology on unparalleled levels in their social, leisure and family lives and have an expectation that the same will hold true in their workplace. While some law firms are undoubtedly early adopters of the latest advances, there is no denying the fact that many maintain a ‘wait and see’ attitude before investing large sums in legal technology.
So where does this leave those millennials who can spot the technological opportunities that their more experienced colleagues might otherwise miss?
Rather than ending up frustrated at seemingly Neanderthal attitudes, or pushing an agenda that disregards the firm’s big picture, some careful planning and an informed and intelligent business case can speak volumes to management boards.
In many ways junior lawyers are better placed for spotting opportunities for technology due to the nature of the work they do, as Stephen Allen, head of legal services delivery at Hogan Lovells, explains, ‘Much of the “new” technology we are seeing relates to the automation or digitisation of the more “routine” elements of legal work – some might say “mundane” – the burden of which is largely borne by junior lawyers. When it comes to a choice between proofreading versus a technological solution, it is clear to see why this will appeal!’
This unique positioning, coupled with a more natural affinity with technology, means that young lawyers potentially have a vital role in shaping how legal services develop. Stephen Allen argues that ‘technology is going to change the way in which we practice and deliver legal services in the very near future, in ways that we can’t even imagine today. The pace of technological development is ever accelerating (Moore’s Law). If you fail to keep up to speed with new developments you will see your understanding of the market disappear over the horizon.’
Put it this way, it is entirely in a junior lawyer’s interest to spot the opportunities – and then do something about them.
Of course trends come and go, and no management board will invest large sums if they are not confident that the technology is useful in the long term and not just the next big thing.
Chrissie Lightfoot, legal futurist, author and co-founder of Robot Lawyer LISA, believes that the challenge isn’t so much in convincing senior management to invest, because the vast majority already recognise they need to in order to be competitive going forward in a digital world. She explains:
‘The challenge is to identify the business case for the direct application of such tech if senior management were to invest and the likely return on investment in both time and money deployed. And therein lays the next challenge, which is to persuade them to take the necessary time to get under the hood and meet with the plethora of technological solution suppliers of both business process and fee-earning delivery solutions. This is a huge challenge for most senior management and junior lawyers.’
Stephen Allen agrees that is the priority. ‘The majority of senior lawyers/management are under pressure to deliver on their fee earning targets and work within budgets within their departments that they are set in relation to their “salary banding”. Accordingly, taking time out to assess technological developments to benefit the company at large, which may not support them directly in achieving that main priority will not be high on their priority list if they feel they are putting their fee earning targets at risk.’
Persuading time-starved senior management to invest time in finding the right technology solution therefore requires some homework on the part of the junior lawyer, and it certainly takes more than just enthusiasm for the latest fad. Stephen Allen says ‘often, eagerness for an exciting new development overpowers a considered evaluation of the problem the technology is seeking to solve, how the technology solves the problem, and the financial, integrations and operational considerations’.
If technology is about problem solving, both the nature of the problem and its possible solution need to be presented in a clear, professional, evidence-based way.
Managers don’t have the luxury – or inclination – to listen to lengthy presentations, especially when they know the resulting financial costs can be considerable. As one partner put it, ‘our experience shows that off-the-shelf products generally require customisation to ensure they are fit for purpose and integrate with existing technology, and this only adds to the cost which has a habit of going up’.
Junior lawyers therefore need to really know the product they’re advocating, and understand how it fits in with the firm’s overall strategy – and that also means engaging with broader issues such as the regulatory environment, data protection, insurers’ requirements etc, which junior lawyers may not otherwise have been exposed to. Introducing a piece of technology may appear to provide a quick fix, but the associated underlying issues may well be more complex and, as Stephen Allen explains, ‘managers always have competing priorities, so while a solution may make perfect sense, where does the problem it solves rank in the list of priorities?’
Before making a formal business case, Chrissie Lightfoot suggests that it is worth identifying and getting on side the ‘natural “entrepreneurial/rainmaker” lawyers and business development/marketing/media/strategy board/special projects members who are respected and can either influence their peers or have control over their departmental or firm-wide business development/marketing/media/strategic/pilot budgets within the company before approaching them with your ideas’. This way she explains, ‘you build an emotional equity bank with a handful of senior management personnel to achieve buy-in of your ideas when you are ready to share’.
When the time comes to make a business case for adopting new technology, Stephen Allen explains that ‘structure, brevity and neutrality’ are vital, with a focus on facts and evidence:
Chrissie Lightfoot agrees and suggests junior lawyers ‘lead the partners to the research and evidence (authoritative source, books, journals, articles and events, thought-leaders on the subject in blogs, forums, follow on Linkedin/twitter etc) that proves the impact that cognitive computing, AI and machine learning is going to have on their company and on them as individuals’.
In other words make the business case for the benefit of embracing the kind of technology that will help future-proof their careers as well as their business. ‘Gathering and sharing information on what clients want in relation to using technology in the legal service delivery process, and what the law firm’s competitors are doing already in relation to investing in technology to keep and attract clients and top talent will no doubt get the partners’ attention.’
Chances are that if you’ve got as far as making a business case then managers have overcome some traditional areas of opposition (fear of change, fear of technology dumbing down lawyers’ skills etc), but it is likely they will still have significant reservations over cost (time and financial), how much of a priority it is, whether it’s really necessary, and where to start.
One recurring – and frustrating – outcome that Stephen Allen identifies is to simply procrastinate. ‘Often management are reluctant to make a definitive decision. To avoid saying yes or no, they will seek further demonstrations, iterations of business cases, time to think. Each for these will start out legitimately, but can descend into a never-ending hole. To avoid this, spend time on getting the business case right and then present as a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ option – it will encourage focus’.
To prevent the ‘no’ response, each area of opposition should be addressed head on, so, for example, the question of priority can be dealt with by asking what the impact of delaying would be. The financial outlay required can be assessed in a clear business case demonstrating cost savings.
As Chrissie Lighthouse says, take a look at the research and reports to back your business case. ‘This is why and how your competitors are overcoming these obstacles to these type of arguments. The bottom line is if the partners do nothing they are likely to lose top junior talent (like you) and clients to competitors and even further down the line the law firm may not even exist.’
Interviewed by Jenny Rayner.
The views expressed by our Legal Analysis interviewees are not necessarily those of the proprietor.
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