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Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Is the Legal Profession Still in Denial about Artificial Intelligence?


I recently attended the Westminster Legal Policy Forum, at which a question was asked form the floor about the prospect of artificial intelligence (AI) becoming prevalent in the delivery of legal services.  The Panel’s response was somewhat hedged, suggesting that AI may play a part in the delivery of legal services, but by way of supplementing the skills of a lawyer.

I believe that the converse will be true and that AI will provide solutions in the majority of cases, leaving human interaction to occur only when required or desired by the client.  This is already happening, for example with www.roadtrafficrepresentation.com, where tailored legal advice is given and Counsel briefed automatically, without any human intervention.

Unless the exponential rate of advance of computing power[1] comes to an unexpected halt, the prevalence of AI will happen quite rapidly.

If anyone is in any doubt about the ability of algorithms to analyse free text and predict outcomes, I would recommend reading several papers published by Daniel Katz[2], Associate Professor of Law at Michigan State University, where he teaches computational law[3].

Our own teaching institutions might take a leaf out of Michigan’s e-book and look seriously at preparing the lawyers of tomorrow for the technological demands that their clients will impose.  Black letter law mixed with management training and soft skills are not enough.  Some law schools[4] have taken steps to embrace this, but they are in the minority.

If unfamiliar with the works of our own Professor Richard Susskind, then his book ‘End of Lawyers?’ is probably the most instructive on the subject.  The legal profession should brace itself for seismic change and failure to grasp this will remove the question mark from the title of Susskind’s book.

A degree of comfort was hinted at by one of the speakers at the Forum, who suggested that the younger generation, or ‘Generation Y’, entering law firms will bring the delivery of legal services into line with the rest of the modern world that we know domestically.

If, however, these bright young things reach positions of influence only after many years of service and incremental promotions, then their ideas will seem as antiquated to the generation that follows them as ours do to today’s newbies.
Firms should be drafting their youngest bright prospects into decision making rooms now and be prepared to be educated for the good of their survival.


[1] See Ray Kurzwell, The Law of Accelerating Returns, 7 March 2001 - http://www.kurzweilai.net/the-law-of-accelerating-returns
[4] For example, University of Westminster and UCL.

Saturday, 4 July 2015

Legal Aid


Road Traffic Representation was honoured as a finalist at the Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year Awards in London on 1 July.  I listened to heart-warming stories about the great work that dedicated legal aid professionals do, mostly for very little tangible reward and often having to fight the state and its manifestations every inch of the way, just to be able to help their clients.

I confess to feeling something of a fraud to find RTR nominated for an award, given that legal aid is rarely available for motoring offences, so how could it even be considered for such an honour?  The easy answer is that the category was ‘Access to Justice through IT’ and marks the gap that IT can fill where the state fails to make provision by way of public funding.

This set me thinking more about the term ‘legal aid’.  These words have been enshrined in legislation for decades and have long become a term of art referring to public funding of legal services.  Sadly, successive governments have cut and cut and hoped that the lawyers would go away so that public funding would wither and die.  The brave lawyers I heard speak in London this week are never going to let that happen without fighting all the way.

Motoring offences have long been denied public funding, so RTR is designed to help more people obtain legal advice and representation, by automating the analysis of a case and providing free legal advice on penalties and potential defences, and using technology to automate the brief to Counsel so as to minimise the cost of quality advice and representation.

These online services will be extended to many other legal needs, including family, employment and welfare.  Taking all this into account, I don’t feel such a fraud after all.  The state has shamefully lost the right to claim ‘legal aid’ to itself and we, the lawyers who give our all, whether by traditional means or technology, are truly entitled to claim that we provide legal aid, as our elected representatives do not.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Access to Justice and Innovation

I was privileged to be asked back to UCL Faculty of Law again this year to address LLM students and, via streaming, the excellent Law Without Walls initiative around the world.  On this occasion, the subject under discussion was 'Access to Justice and Innovation'.

The idea was to explore whether innovative technology could alleviate hardships caused by eroding access to justice primarily caused by withdrawal of public funding, but also by the high cost barriers to privately paying clients.  Preparation for the evening brought it home to me just how far our proud accessibility to justice, dating back to the introduction of legal advice and assistance in 1949, has fallen.

In those early years, around 80% of the public were eligible for legal aid, falling to 40% by 1973 and plummeting to 28% in 2008.  Whilst I could point to government initiatives on mainland Europe, such as the Dutch Rechtwijzer online portal to help divorcing and separating people, I could not do the same for the UK.

There was also a lack of privately created online solutions to demonstrate, so I used my own RTR service to explain the benefits of automated expert systems and the true AI solutions that they can breed. I have no doubt that these systems will be prevalent in the global legal market within a few years.

I received some great questions from the floor and from as far afield as the USA and China, with a ready recognition of the benefits and challenges that the technology brings.  So too, a realisation that the careers that these young people will follow in the law may not be in traditional roles, but could well be as the legal engineers envisaged by Professor Richard Susskind.

In addition to engaging in social questions about the perversity of diminishing access to justice in a civilised society and the imperative to ensure that those without easy access to technology for economic, social or educational reasons, I faced searching questions about commerciality, white labelling, direct access to the Bar and the importance of design.

I must thank Professor Richard Moorhead at UCL for his kind invitation to speak at UCL and I hope that those in attendance physically and virtually felt in some small way as enthused as I was by their presence.  The event and question and answer session can be viewed here and here.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Quality Solicitors Game Changer - Part 1 at least

The announcement that all 200 members of Quality Solicitors are to abandon hourly rates in favour of fixed fees has the potential to be a game changer.  I say potential, because something else needs to happen before an even more significant change occurs.

I have long been dubious about the merits of the QS model.  I could see the benefits of pooled marketing budgets and the consequent raising of profile.  I had no doubt that the brand would attract more work for the member firms.  I questioned, however, what was the point of taking on new instructions if the way in which they were processed was the same as ever, because clients would not be impressed and would be unlikely to return.

In the many years I have been working with law firms in the introduction, application and improvement of technology, two universal truths invariably emerge.  The first is that a steady influx of clients willing to pay hourly charges is a disincentive for lawyers to adopt new working practices, especially the committed use of technology and the delegation of tasks that do not warrant a highly qualified hourly rate.

The second truth is a corollary of the first: fixed fees change this outlook.  It has long been the case with residential conveyancing, which has been remunerated largely through fixed fees for decades now.  On the whole, firms undertaking this work arrange themselves and their IT in a way that gives them a fighting chance of making a profit.  Yet under the same roof, their colleagues enjoying the luxury of hourly rates eschew these practices.

The lessons learned here are what cause me to refer to the QS initiative in terms of potential rather than certainty.  They say that even litigation will be charged at fixed fees and this highlights the absolute necessity of analysing all processes and identifying where technology and delegation can be introduced to make the work profitable.  It is no use adopting the strategy that some high profile new entrants have of trumpeting fixed fees, which are in reality a calculation of what the hourly rate model would have produced and then some more. That might wash in certain commercial sectors, but not in the consumer market.

Slater & Gordon have demonstrated how hard the battle for the hearts and minds of consumers will be fought.  If QS firms are to win a good share of the market, they have to adopt Part 2 of the strategy.  This will include self-service online, streamlined internal processes and charging only for those parts of the work that is of real value to clients.

I await with great interest the unfolding of that strategy.

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Reinvent Law Conference London 2013

I was privileged to be able to speak at the Reinvent Law Conference in London on 14 June.  It was inspiring to hear so many contributors demonstrating their deep thinking about how legal services could be delivered in a way that is better for those who need legal support, regardless of whether this is in the best commercial interests of lawyers.

The assumption inherent in all the presentations was that technology is changing the game, so instead of trying to resist that and uphold protectionist practices, let us ask how we can use that technology to bring change for the better.  The questions were not just asked, but were answered with some fascinating insights into what is going on and what is coming next.

The format of the conference was unlike any other I have attended.  Most of the presentations were limited to between 6 and 10 minutes, which enabled a great variety of topics and kept the content sharp and to the point.  The range of approaches may be illustrated by two titles: "Reinvention is Doing, Not Talking" (Joshua Kubicki) and "Understanding the Law with Metaphors, Spread the Law with Images" (Olivia Zarcate).

I must also put on record the first time I have ever witnessed a presentation without words, when University of Westminster student Lah Leutrim Ahmeti treated us to his vision of "URLaw" by interpreting his slides through the medium of robotic dance!  I could sense a collective dropping of chins, but no doubt about the message that was being delivered.

The School of Law at the University of Westminster is going beyond the usual diet of black letter law, having introduced a new module, 2'1st Century Law Practice in the UK', which will meet the approval of final speaker Professor Richard Susskind.  Professor Susskind has argued for many years, most recently in 'Tomorrow's Lawyers', that legal educators have a duty to prepare aspiring lawyers to the world as it is now and is fast becoming rather than the practices that will soon die out.

Judging by the quality not only of many of the student presenters, but also their sharp and delightful contemporaries attending in support, the University should be proud of what it is achieving.

Presenters hailed from the USA, UK and France.  It struck me that the USA/UK split in particular is between a huge amount of research and knowledge in the former and the emergence of practical solutions in the latter (albeit nothing like as rapidly as it could be).  The fact that this is nothing more than a generalisation is proved by the amazing creation of Don Philbin, 'Picture It Settled', which predicts settlement parameters in negotiations with remarkable accuracy, the event showed just what could be done when marrying these two strands together.

Congratulations to Dan Katz and Renee Knake of the Reinvent Law Laboratory at Michigan State University for putting on such a stimulating event.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Lawyers need more money (apparently)

I was somewhat taken aback this week to read an article by John Grimley entitled "Why ReinventLaw needs reinventing".  In commenting on the ReinventLaw event to take place in London on Friday 14 June, the author was suggesting that whilst innovative use of technology is all very well, it's really not as important as business development and growing law firm revenue.  To quote:

"While I strongly believe in technological innovation in legal services – I believe it’s grossly overemphasized when one considers what law firms need most: Solutions focused on more effectively generating new law firm revenue."

A mild Twitter Spat (I feel an acronym coming on) followed, in which Mr Grimley maintained that what is needed most is revenue.  Quite apart from the fact that the principal purpose of the ReinventLaw conference is to explore how technology is bringing great change to the way law is and will be practised and is not therefore an appropriate forum to discuss business development any more than it is to muse over the latest trends in trust law, the argument spectacularly misses the point.  I am, however, grateful to Mr Grimley for demonstrating a substantial body of opinion (or at least hope) that the double, or triple, or bouncing or somersaulting cat recession will eventually go away and we can all get back to making lots of money again.

This wishful thinking does not stand up to much scrutiny.  Technological change has barely begun and we either embrace and work with what is happening or we subside into Canute-like irrelevance.  Come to ReinventLaw on Friday and hear how all around us those binary numbers are eating into what has been a lavish lunch for centuries.  Clients will increasingly be offered new, less labour-intensive, more responsive and intuitive and, sorry Mr G, far less expensive ways of handling their legal affairs.  In many instances, no human interaction will be required.

There might be short term gains to be had from milking the status quo, but those who change the way we work will be the ultimate winners, alongside the benefitting clients that is, for they are supposed to be the reason we as lawyers exist.

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Unbundling gathers pace

Following my recent blog on unbundling legal services (or rebundling as Professor Stephen Mayson prefers to call it), I'm seeing many examples of the concept emerging into the market, including http://lawyersupportedmediation.org.uk/, http://www.evident-legal.com/ and http://www.absolutebarrister.com/.  Some law firms are getting their act together too, with a client firm of mine recently asking me to write workflows for 'supported divorce' and 'kick start' divorce packages.

This may well turn out to be the most disruptive and lasting impact on the legal market and one which will take hold quite firmly over the next 12 months.  Watch out in particular for initiatives from this site, all of which will be available on a white label basis.