‘Lawyers are like plumbers — both will be immune from the tech revolution’

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By Thomas Connelly on

The legal profession’s ‘Uber moment’ is a long way off, FT says

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Lawyers and plumbers have more in common than you might think, according to an article in the Financial Times that says both are immune from the so-called tech revolution.

The piece’s author, columnist Michael Skapinker, says he recently found himself in a room of lawyers discussing how they traditionally bill by the hour. You can see Legal Cheek’s various reports on crazy billable hours targets and the methods adopted by some firms to ensure they’re met.

One lawyer, Skapinker said, asked in what other job people could “get away” with charging this way. Skapinker responded: “Plumbing.”

Both law and plumbing are “essential services” that “we cannot do without”. He explained that “when a pipe bursts or a toilet stops working, they require immediate attention”, while in terms of commercial law:

“[N]o company would embark on a takeover, buy a building, relocate its head office or fire its chief executive without extensive legal advice. And that is where the largest, hourly billed legal fortunes are made.”

The similarities don’t stop there. The article (£) goes on to explain how “neither plumbing nor law has been significantly disrupted” by technological advancements, despite some tech businesses “boasting how artificial intelligence will soon make much drudge legal work redundant”.

Law is yet to reach its “Uber moment” because, Skapinker argued in a previous article, “those at the top of the most successful law firms have little incentive to change”; partners share profits among themselves, so why invest in emerging technology? “Other forces” work in the traditional legal profession’s favour. These include that, since the financial crisis, regulation has increased and companies are scared of getting things wrong, “so they will continue to spend on legal services”.

The 2018 Firms Most List

Despite Skapinker’s scepticism, City firms continue to engage with the ever-growing lawtech sector.

A host of top outfits including Allen & Overy, Slaughter and May, Mishcon de Reya, Reed Smith and Dentons have launched innovation hubs in recent years to attract entrepreneurs through their doors, while other firms have signed deals with AI software providers with the aim of improving efficiency.

Technology is having an impact on law schools, too.

Earlier this month, we revealed that the University of Manchester was teaming up with magic circle player Freshfields and AI company Neota Logic to deliver a new optional module called ‘Legal Tech and Access to Justice’. The course will use Neota’s software to teach students to build applications that improve access to justice. Freshfields, which has a large legal services base in Manchester, is covering the cost of the software license and course materials.

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