‘Tech labs’, hubs for digital innovators, have been introduced in several law firms in order to optimise the use of technology to simplify, automate and improve the legal profession. In-house tech labs have been implemented at, Slaughter and May, Dentons, Mishcon de Reya and Allen & Overy, among others.
Tech hubs give start-up entrepreneurs a space to develop their technologies, whilst also providing access to a particular firm’s lawyers for product testing and user feedback. The MDR LAB at Mishcon de Reya was launched in 2017 as a programme for tech start-ups in the legal space. The LAB is open to early stage and growth technology start-ups, and from companies at concept through to revenue-generating stage, as long as the product or service is applicable to the legal industry. The hub provides successful applicants with the opportunity to pilot their technologies to their target market and gain a better understanding of how their technologies benefit legal services.
In reshaping the business and practice of law, ‘innovation’ is the buzz word dominating law firm marketing slogans, but what does it really mean? Robyn Weatherley, programme manager at Mishcon de Reya defines innovation as ‘the process of taking ideas that challenge the status quo and turning them into a reality that ultimately changes the way something is done’.
Certainly, these ‘changes’ focus on making lawyers’ jobs simpler by reducing time spent on administrative tasks, prompting lawyers to ‘question the way things are done’. As Robyn explains: ‘this ultimately encourages a cultural change whereby we create a section of the workforce who are willing to challenge engrained processes and try new ways of doing things’.
Evidently, technology has the ability to automate tasks. Robyn suggests that ‘those firms that are able to explore and adopt new technologies are going to be able to improve efficiencies, remain competitive to existing and potential clients and ultimately stay ahead of the race’. At Mishcon de Reya, members of the MDR LAB will have access to the firm’s legal and business networks and have opportunities to attract investment and/or licensing products to Mishcon. Branding yourself as an ‘innovative firm’ is more important than ever, as it is estimated that 100 of the top 300 law firms will disappear by 2022.
While the legal market is adapting, the role of lawyers will inevitably undergo some change too. Integrating law with tech allows lawyers to focus their time on high-value emotionally intelligent tasks, whilst turning to AI for automation. Robyn explains how this will produce more efficient ways of working: ‘it opens [lawyers’] eyes to the potential impact technology can have on repetitive, time-consuming tasks. From a firm-wide point of view, the future of practising law lies in firms being able to harness technology to automate tasks, capture and interrogate data and use AI’.
Also opening its doors to tech start-ups is Slaughter and May. Collaborate launched in April 2019 and has been created to enhance the firm’s engagement with the best new legal tech developers. The programme helps to ‘shape the development of legal tech and identify future efficiencies in the delivery of legal services more generally’, explain innovation executive, Billie Moore, and head of innovation, Jane Stewart. Slaughter and May even offers cohort members two mentors - a mentor from the firm’s knowledge or innovation teams and a practising lawyer from an area relevant to the entrepreneur’s business. Billie and Jane explain that by giving lawyers the opportunity to mentor entrepreneurs, they are ‘exposed to a broad range of legal tech, allowing them to identify potential pain points or gaps in the market… it’s critical that legal tech development is executed in conjunction with the firm’s lawyers and/or clients’.
Fast Forward is another programme Slaughter and May offers innovators. Launched in October 2016, Fast Forward aims to give young companies access to the first-class legal services that they may need but struggle to find and afford. In January 2019 the firm welcomed its third cohort of successful businesses, which include an email collaboration tool, a social impact fin-tech tool and an e-commerce delivery system to transport parcels to urban areas through utility style pipes.
Focusing on innovation allows Slaughter and May to ‘identify areas for improvement and find new ways of working which add value for our clients, enhance the working lives of employees, and puts us in the best position to win the types of work we want to win’.
The legal tech tools developed by businesses within the tech hub also assist Slaughter and May to deliver its corporate social responsibility strategy. Define is one such tool, which was set up by a visually impaired lawyer who wanted to make the process of reading contracts easier. JUST: Access is another Collaborate cohort member which aims to use legal technology to improve access to justice. Last year the Magic Circle firm invited two A-Level students to coding workshops where ‘the students gained valuable paid work experience and hands-on practice and we gained a lot out of their coding expertise too - a win-win’, says Billie and Jane.
Tech hubs aren’t the only way in which firms are staying ahead of the technological curve; tech-focused training contracts are now being offered at many international outfits. Ashurst offers a graduate scheme with a focus on legal technology, Burges Salmon has announced a new technology-focused partnership with the University of Bristol, and Clifford Chance has developed IGNITE: a law tech training contract.
So do future trainees need an aptitude for technology?
The legal profession is changing. Incorporating digital technology into a law firm ‘creates a group of people who are willing to try new methods that challenge the way things are currently done, helping drive adoption of new technologies’, says Robyn at Mishcon. By supporting entrepreneurs and working with start-ups which benefit legal services, we are starting to see how firms must evolve and reposition themselves in this constantly shifting market. Supporting entrepreneurs and working with start-ups is one such way for law firms to ensure that they are evolving and repositioning themselves in a constantly shifting marketplace. Billie and Jane comment on the benefit of working alongside tech entrepreneurs, ‘it enables us to streamline our legal tech piloting programme, shape the development of legal tech and identify future efficiencies in the delivery of legal services more generally’. And this involves input and willingness from individuals too, who must be able to adapt in order for firms to optimise their resources.
Law firms are competing in the tech race, but how far will they go in utilising legal tech? For now, innovative software is working towards reducing the amount of time lawyers spend on administrative tasks and enabling legal professionals to realign their skills to focus more on intelligent tasks which technology cannot reproduce.