The legal market is pushing lawyers and law firms to do more for less: as clients now ask for a smarter service, the legal field turns to technology in search of solutions. In this article, we make the case for an online network of lawyers: how technology can help lawyers, and particularly lawyers in tech, to achieve a better connection with clients, provide legal services online and make their online presence more effective.
What is legal tech all about?
The interaction between the legal world and new technologies has been a popular subject of discussion in the legal community over the last few years.
The contact between law and technology, and so lawyers in tech, in some areas has already made an impact: that seems to be the case of data protection, where a new awareness on personal data and their role in today’s society has generated a new discipline and related professional competences.
In some other areas, we are still in the “research and development” moment: there is research and debate, but we still need to wait some time before a compelling product is released and widely adopted by lawyers. An example is the blockchain scene: work in progress.
Anyway, legal tech is bringing some fresh air in the legal field, where the appetite for innovation is traditionally low. As the legal sector tries to get rid of the unflattering fame of being technology-averse, and the number of tech lawyers increases, I would start by asking:
What is legal tech all about? Can we find any particular factor pushing for innovation in Law?
More for less: efficiency is the key
In his seminal book “Tomorrow’s Lawyer” Richard Susskind mentions the “more for less challenge” that lawyers are facing, including it among the drivers for change in the legal profession: clients are now less willing to spend, yet they expect more results. This trend has led law firms to contain the costs and try to improve efficiency.
The client is no longer happy to pay (if he/she ever was) for unproductive costs; the focus is on performance, to deliver at a lower price. The market now clearly asks for a smarter service.
Susskind also mentions technology as another driver for change in the legal world.
As lawyers and law firms need to meet higher standards of efficiency, they turn to technology in search of solutions.
The first victim of the “more for less challenge” is the billable hour: as the focus shifts on the quality of the performance, the billing based on the mere count of the hours spent on a task becomes an outdated method, soon a relic of the past.
Internet and the new workplace
The internet has not only changed the way we work, but it has also redefined the concept of "workplace."
The bond between a profession and a physical location is no longer as strong as it used to be; professional services are now increasingly delivered online. Lawyers know that and work differently than 15 years ago.
We now want to see whether the resources provided by the internet can lead to a new model of interaction between lawyers and clients.
Besides the billable hour, another model under pressure is the traditional law firm: expensive to run and with high overheads. With fewer resources available, clients now focus primarily on results, and are reluctant to pay for unnecessary extras: this questions the old business model and its sustainability.
As law firms face the “more for less challenge”, improving productivity while containing the costs is now crucial.
The law firm and the legal market
The legal market is articulated in law firms: a fragmented and crowded landscape.
Atomized, split into legal practice areas and related professional competences, the legal market is not user-friendly.
With no legal background, the client has to navigate the sea of lawyers and legal specializations trying to find the right one, for skills and experience, suitable to his/her legal case. Then, make the first contact and arrange a meeting, which requires commuting to the law firm, often more than once. Impractical and time-consuming, when time is indeed money.
Using the IT jargon, we could say that much could be done to improve the user experience of the client in search of a lawyer.
Law firms on the other hand, for the most part, replicate the same strategies, using the same tools, trying to solve the same problems.
Therefore, the traditional law firm model appears to be outdated, expensive and ineffective: it fails to reach many potential clients, creating the contradiction of unmet demand for legal services despite the abundance of lawyers.
Much can be done to improve access to legal services, making it more affordable and practical: that will “unlock” a demand currently hampered by the old model and the lack of innovation thereof.
Therefore: is there anything technology can do to better connect clients and lawyers, evolving the brick and mortar law firm to something more effective?
Law firm 2.0
A possible and viable evolution would be to expand the law firm beyond its walls, making it more connected and interactive. A network of internet-connected law firms and tech lawyers, with a shared mission: make the offer of legal services more accessible to clients. The network of law firms would provide a gateway to the legal services offered by the members of the network.
One may ask: what’s the advantage for law firms to join such a network?
How to reconcile lawyers’ rather individualistic attitude with a shared enterprise?
A well-structured legal community, with a broad set of legal competences easily accessible to clients: that would grant to the law firms in the network an outreach they would not have otherwise.
Using a metaphor from boxing, the lawyer or small law firm would “punch above its weight,” taking advantage from the scale of the network in terms of visibility, while also gaining access to tools provided by the network and shared among its members.
For example, marketing and communication strategies, internet tools: they are expensive to set up and run by a single lawyer or law firm, whereas they become affordable and more effective if jointly undertaken.
The network’s infrastructure needs to be as light as possible, so to contain the costs and boost the efficiency of the shared enterprise.
To this goal, a well designed online platform would suit the network, connecting clients and lawyers, allowing the delivery of legal services online whenever possible.
We could think to a practical “user interface” for legal services, facilitating the first contact and the online interaction between client and lawyer in a win-win scenario:
- Clients would quickly make the first contact with a lawyer qualified for a particular legal case;
- Lawyers would be more accessible to clients and would find more convenient to handle online those interactions when an in-person meeting is not strictly necessary.
Online legal marketplace?
Tools designed to connect lawyers and clients are not new though: that is what legal marketplaces do.
Their scope is simple, yet their success highlights the growing demand for quick, streamlined access to legal services.
The model we envision enhances the legal marketplace and brings it to the next level: not only it would foster the first contact, as the classic legal marketplace does, but also provides the tools enabling the online interaction between client and lawyer that follows.
From a technical standpoint, our model would require to set up, maintain and secure tools for communication, exchange of documents, handle payments: a virtual, shared law firm.
We started our article by asking whether we could find any particular driver behind the legal tech movement and the innovation process taking place in the legal field.
We found that over the years the legal market has changed under the impact of new and less prosperous economic circumstances: the more for less challenge.
With fewer resources available, clients ask for a smart and efficient service: an indeed compelling reason for the adoption of technology by law professionals.
We also made a case for an online network of law firms and the advantages for both lawyers and clients, as the rise of online legal marketplaces shows.
We can conclude that legal tech is not necessarily about fancy new technologies to be adopted in the future: an assessment of the critical aspects in today’s legal profession, in the light of the available technology, would lead to craft, test and deploy new tools right away.
Therefore, we would advocate for a practical approach to the innovation process, based on:
- a new mindset among the members of the legal community: ready to embrace the change, open to collaboration and new intellectual challenges.
- a method: to highlight the flaws and shortcomings in a legal system, and address them right away. Let’s focus on real, pressing issues first, solving real problems: innovation for its own sake is of little use.
Lastly, a new awareness of the mission of Law in our fast-changing society: this, more than any particular new tool, is what will propel the legal sector in the future, strengthening its crucial role for a civilized society.