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Legal technology: What does the next decade hold for law firms?

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By Elizabeth Davidson on

Three CMS lawyers share their thoughts

What does the next decade hold for lawyers? Some suggestions are greater use of agile working, remote working, artificial intelligence (AI) and tech innovations, while disruptive technologies may force lawyers to rethink how they work. But what do lawyers think?

In November, around 50 students gathered to hear lawyers’ views on the future at Legal Cheek’s panel discussion, ‘Innovation and the law with CMS in Edinburgh’.

Three lawyers took part: Clare Wallis, senior associate, real estate; Nick Brady, associate, technology and media; and Megan McCulloch, trainee solicitor in the technology, media, IP and competition team.

The biggest impact technology has had on legal work has been its effect on productivity, Brady said. AI such as Kira Systems (search technology, which helps with due diligence, M&A contracts and other documents) has made lawyers lives easier in terms of admin so they can focus on the more technically complex jobs. For example, he was currently involved in a large due diligence exercise, involving looking through clauses to see if anything needed to be flagged up. Technology did much of the preliminary work. Wallis, who has practised for 14 years, agreed, noting that property deals are done more quickly now. McCulloch said technology stripped out a lot of the laborious work involved in the disclosure part of litigation, speeding up the process before documents are passed to the lawyer for review.

They agreed, however, that the lines between legal coder and lawyer would never completely blur. “You could never code for all eventualities, technology can make it more efficient but there are so many variables involved that the role of the lawyer will never be replaced,” Wallis said. Brady said that, even with the rise of smart contracts, the lawyer on the ground with clients would have a separate role from that of the legal coder.

Wallis said it was important to go to the client with new technology suggestions rather than wait for them to come to you. For example, CMS recently did some work which required lots of similar contracts. It used a document production system that was programmed to produce a draft, which meant a paralegal was able to do the work in half the time. This was explained in advance to the clients, who were pleased. Ultimately, however, technology is used to save time and money but everything is checked thoroughly by a lawyer before it is signed off.

Around 50 students attented the innovation-themed event at CMS’ Edinburgh office

While blockchain (the distributed ledger technology behind Bitcoin) may catch the imagination of the media, it has had negligible impact on the ground in law firms. There has been talk about it being used to make property transactions more secure, for example, but it is definitely not in use at the moment. Similarly, crypto currencies have been hyped up but are not used in practice.

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The panel were also not convinced that 5G and faster internet would make much difference. Wallis said: “I’m not sure what impact 5G or faster internet would have because for me it works perfectly at the moment. People don’t know if you’re in the office or not when you speak to them, and I work from home one day a week as I have children.” This does not mean lawyers should be “at work” all the time. “There is no expectation at this firm that you should answer emails while on holiday or in the middle of the night, in fact you would be positively discouraged from doing so,” Wallis said. “It is down to the individual to manage their use of technology in a way that works best for them.”

McCulloch, a trainee, said different teams have different approaches. “In litigation, for example, you are expected to be in the office unless you are more than five years qualified, and I think that’s beneficial because you learn so much from your colleagues, if I have a question I can turn around in my chair and ask someone, whereas if I was working remotely I wouldn’t know if they were in a meeting or on the phone or how best to contact them,” she said.

What would you advise your former student self?

Don't hold yourself back because of self-doubt is neuroscience grad turned CMS Early Talent trainee Megan McCulloch's top tip to applicants ahead of the firm's 6 January vac scheme deadline ?? #LCCareers

Posted by Legal Cheek on Monday, 30 December 2019

The panel were asked if they thought a four-day week could ever become the norm among lawyers. Brady said: “With law being so client-focused, it would have to be embraced by the client first. Otherwise, you would end up trying to squeeze five days into four.” Wallis was also sceptical that it would ever become the norm in the profession.

As agile working becomes more common, however, how does it impact on colleagues who are in the office? Wallis said she did not think it was an issue, because colleagues can phone or use Skype and, if a junior colleague needs assistance, for example, there will be people who are in the office who they can ask.

Finally, the panel were asked what advice they would give to themselves as law students, if they could go back in time. Brady said: “Do everything that you can to gain experience and follow up any opportunities to meet with firms”. Wallis advised: “Get as much experience as you can in different departments. Try to get work experience and placements so that you are sure you are qualifying into the right area”. McCulloch, who did a science degree before converting to law, said: “Develop confidence in your skills and don’t be afraid to put yourself forward”.

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