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Saturday, 24 November 2012

Legal Futures Conference on the Cutting Edge of Law

I was delighted to be asked to speak at the Legal Futures Conference on the Cutting Edge of Law in London on 19 November 2012.  Neil Rose, the creator of 'Legal Futures' has for some considerable time now been a beacon shining a light on the path opening up before us in the modern legal landscape in the UK and it was no surprise that a significant number of overseas visitors were in attendance both as speakers and part of the audience.

The USA were well represented by LegalZoom, speaking and listening, and Daniel Katz from Michigan State University, whose startling presentation is commented on below.  I am aware of at least two Australians in attendance, one of whom I met in the post-match pub debate.  He is the founder of his commercial firm in Adelaide and I was astonished on asking him what brought him to London to hear him say that he had flown in specifically for the conference.  The UK is leading the way in changing the infrastructure of legal services and the world is watching.

It's a long time since I've witnessed such an attentive audience.  Most stayed right to the end and this was no CPD points gathering exercise.  It seemed to me that everyone in attendance was in one way or another part of the great changes that are taking place and the rapt attention in the conference room was matched only by the highly charged buzz of exchanging ideas in the lunch and refreshment breaks.  It was a good place to be.

So who said what?  Arlene Adams, CEO of Peppermint Technology, opened with what has become something of a benchmark in terms of client expectations.  This is not a place to go into detail on the findings, which are summarised well in Neil's blog.  I was surprised to learn quite how many people still want face to face communication with their lawyer, but I do expect this to change as other options become mainstream.  Nonetheless, I agree with Chas Rampenthal's view expressed on behalf of LegalZoom that people (let's not get hung up here on the tiresome client/customer debate) want choice and they should be offered that choice in terms of how they receive the help that they seek.

Adam Sampson, Chief Legal Ombudsman, treated us to the view of us from the client's shoes and my favourite of his observations was that until taking on the job he had never heard of the term 'disbursement' that we so glibly bandy about.  (For that matter why do we call our fees 'costs'?)

I don't think any of us were surprised to hear Brian Weston of the Institute of Customer Service tell us that 67% of disaffected clients will spread word of a bad experience, but nice to hear that 1 in 4 would pay more for excellent service (or at least tell a researcher that they would).

Karl Chapman, CEO of what has in my view been the most dynamic new entrant into the market - Riverview Law - told us a lot about the impact they are having, but said quite simply that none of it was rocket science, just stuff that any of us could do if we thought enough about those we are serving and what they want.  Who can seriously argue with his assertion that the status quo is untenable?  The only blot on his otherwise pristine copy book was to offer a day at Chelsea FC as part of a prize for an online competition.  Still, nice to spend as much time there as the average Blues manager I suppose.

Conveyancers look away now.  Harry Hill (In-Deed, former Countrywide) had some very depressing figures to show us demonstrating just how far Conveyancing firms have allowed agents and other third parties to suck all the profit out of the work.  I hope that at least the firm that charged a happy Harry £5,500 for a Will (that's an awful lot of tax planning) attracted his custom without having to pay anyone else for the privilege.

Trevor Howarth showed just how simple it is for a well known brand such as Eddie Stobart can drive (sorry!) willing clients and barristers to meet in the middle for a fixed fee.

So far, much of what we had heard was a story about marketing, so it was interesting to hear Doug Crawford, CEO of myhomemove, explain how automation was at the heart of the success of the country's first ABS.  Telling too, and no surprise, that Avin Rabheru of Smedvig Capital, behind this ABS, explained how dealing with the traditional partnership structure was not usually fruitful in terms of multiple decision makers not making effective (or often any) decisions.

Saleem Arif of Quality Solicitors spoke eloquently about the brand, but I would have liked to have heard more about how the work that the brand is generating will be processed.

"Partnerships are dead!" exclaimed Tim Oliver of Parabis.  Actually Tim doesn't go in for exclamations; it was more of a statement made with quiet authority that a partnership is not a suitable business structure for making dynamic decisions.  Rather, said Tim, resolutions often come down to the lowest common denominator.

Mention of quiet authority, not to say, massive confidence, prompts me to note how Greg Shields, CEO of Forster Dean, spoke with pride about the work of this 29-office firm, which specialises in personal injury and conveyancing and yet does not pay referral fees.  The open culture that Greg spoke about was refreshing and he was pretty clear that separation of ownership from management of the firm was central to its success.

If you've wondered about the story behind James Caan of Dragons' Den investing in Knights, David Beech, the firm's managing partner, was happy to tell the tale.  David's background is in private equity and has shown the way for traditional law firms (Knights was established in 1759) mixing it with modern investment.

Onto the last lap, I found myself sandwiched between two impressive American speakers in Chas Rampenthal, General Counsel of LegalZoom (see comments above) and Daniel Katz, Assistant Professor of Law at Michigan State University's College of Law.  Once Daniel got going (and he took off with all the speed of a Harrier Jump Jet), I felt guilty that I had delayed him in apparently going over time with expressing my views about online legal services and how I have sought to manifest them in the shape of Road Traffic Representation (with many more services of this kind to follow).

Daniel teaches computational legal studies and his students must know that they can't attend his lectures with a hangover, for he cracks on at a pace but great lucidity when explaining how much better predictive technology is becoming and how no one can take for granted that humans will always be the master of sorting all the nuances required in considering and applying the law.  The saving grace is that he is of the opinion that man and machine together will beat the machine on its own, but the message is clear in that we would be foolish to assume that we will always have centre stage in advising on the law.

This was easily the most worthwhile conference I have ever attended.  The learning didn't stop in the formal setting and some of the best ideas were exchanged in a pretty full pub afterwards, or at least I thought so at the time...

Thursday, 8 November 2012

The American take on online legal services

I read with interest and some dismay this article in the Wall Street Journal on American lawyers' responses to emerging online legal services.  The comments the article attracted, particularly the first comment, missed the point spectacularly, so I have written this to the author of the article to provide a different perspective:
"I read with interest your article on virtual lawyers.  I am a solicitor in the UK who has for years provided workflow systems for law firms, because in practice a lot of the work that a client pays for is pure process that does not warrant the substantial hourly rate across the board.  Last year I launched direct to the public Road Traffic Representation (RTR), an online legal advice and representation service for persons charged with motoring offences. 

"RTR uses artificial intelligence to analyse details of the offence and the motorist’s driving record and advice on likely penalties if convicted and potential defences.  The model took a couple of years to construct, compiling questions that a lawyer would ask a client face to face and responding to the answers.  This routine of taking instructions is pure process and the dispensation of the advice is a modern way of translating the law into the client’s circumstances.  It is all provided free of charge.  The client then has the option to pay for what is of real value to him, namely representation in court.  The brief to Counsel is generated automatically from the data collected from the site in the virtual interview process.  Should the client require the comfort of one to one advice to supplement the free online advice, a fixed fee of £35 (including VAT) buys telephone advice from a lawyer for an unlimited period of time.  The advice is noted on the client’s secure part of the website and forms part of the brief to Counsel if the client seeks representation.
"I intend extending this model to many other areas of the law.  I believe that delivery of legal services in this way will become the norm in the near future.  Centuries ago we paid scribes to read and write for us.  Our children, let alone our grandchildren, will marvel at why we paid lawyers to tell us what the law says.  Meanwhile, I was disappointed but not entirely surprised to see the first commentator on your article focus on cheque fraud.  Why on earth anyone would think of marrying a cheque payment process to an online service is beyond me.  Secure online payment systems suit online services.  More importantly, the comment demonstrates the mind set of many lawyers burying their heads in the sand and thinking that their world is not going to change in the same way that everyone else’s has and will continue to do, only a great deal more rapidly."

I will be fascinated to see whether this response is aired publicly in the WSJ and if so, how it is received!

Sunday, 30 September 2012

No need to remain office bound

I attended a meeting in a hotel lobby some time ago and as I entered the vast room I was struck by just how many similar meetings were going on.  I’ve been doing business like this for a many years now and there have always been plenty of others doing the same thing, but I haven’t witnessed quite such numbers other than in a conference environment.

These people were clearly not all part of one group.  Everywhere there were earnest and convivial conversations going on as the participants leaned over laptops from comfortable armchairs and sofas.  One of my companions was a high flyer in commerce and I asked him if this really was a phenomenon that has arisen in relatively recent years or was it always so outside the professions.  He confirmed that technology has made all the difference to the numbers now conducting business in this way, so much so that hotels are specifically gearing up for this kind of trade and often turn a greater profit per square foot of informal meeting space (even the formal meeting rooms are disappearing) than bedrooms, bars or restaurants.  The table turn is high and yet coffee, sandwiches and Wi-Fi access are consumed in sufficient quantities to deliver very healthy margins.

The hotel I attended was part of a chain and yet it was well appointed and an improvement on most offices I have ever worked in or visited.  Free parking was plentiful and the whole experience was energising.  Once over, my colleagues and I went our separate ways, all working from home as it happens.

This is not a trend that I can see being reversed.  People are being freed from the constraints of working in one fixed place and firms should at the very least be asking themselves whether they need as much office space as they currently occupy and whether there are opportunities to reduce rental and associated overheads and engage in a more flexible and in my opinion more enjoyable way of working.  I recommend a strategic review of all leases and a plan in place well before lease expiry and break dates, as once those dates pass with new leases or further locked in periods, the opportunity will be lost for several more years during which time the pace of change in technology may cause a largely office bound workforce to appear more and more anachronistic.

A shift in working patterns could also bring about changes in volumes of certain types of work.  A shrinking market for office space would obviously impact on the volume of commercial property transactions as office space lies empty.  Shortages of good housing stock could lead to office blocks being transformed into apartments, thereby rejuvenating the residential market.  Strategic reviews may need to be far reaching…

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Companies urged to consider self-service model

A recent survey of general counsel of 74 major companies conducted on behalf or LexisNexis found that 55% of general counsel want to see colleagues take a more 'self-serve' approach to the creation of low value or low risk contracts.  What does this mean?  Put simply, if sound processes are in place to apply a suitable contract template to a given requirement, non-lawyers in the business should be able to produce the contracts themselves without using valuable in-house legal resource or potentially expensive external legal resource.

Whilst law firms serving corporate counsel may be relieved to find that the survey also reported 57% did not agree that contract templates within their organization are visible and easy to find and 51% did not agree that such templates are kept up to date, this is likely to amount to only a temporary reprieve.  Change has been a while coming, but that it will come to pass is inevitable.  As long ago as 17 September 2009, Barclays’ Group General Counsel Mark Harding made this interesting comment in The Law Society Gazette:

“We haven’t decided definitively what the right model is for us...The bigger prize of outsourcing is the standardisation of documentation, which we’ve gone in for big time, because you don’t need a lawyer involved at all. If you’ve set the templates up right, you’ve got electronic version control and all that, then it’s ultimately a better solution because you eliminate the legal cost.”

Barclays will not be the only company to recognise that standardisation (and systematisation) can lie at the heart of what lawyers have traditionally offered as part of a bespoke professional service, and it would appear that some of these companies will now start to replicate systems for themselves at considerable costs savings.  This puts at a distinct disadvantage firms that have not even systematised their own working practices, as their potential corporate clients will dismiss any notion of instructing such firms.

The LexisNexis report relates that the desire to move to a self-service model is being hampered by those who should make it happen being too busy fire-fighting, but undoubtedly the pressure to cut costs that is mounting all the time will have the desired effect and there will be substantial change.

For years, law firms, particularly in the commercial sector, have failed to take up the challenge of systematising their work where this is possible and now it may be too late.  Why would a company pay a law firm to run an automated process that the company can run itself?  If companies create workflows using software that has been available to law firms for decades, and design those workflows to alert them to where higher level legal expertise may be required, they will make the substantial savings in costs that they require, as well as improving their own efficiency.

I fully expect that embedded workflows in corporate processes will become commonplace within the next few years.  This is not all bad news for law firms, as this will create opportunities to interface between different workflow systems so that those firms that do invest and use properly the technology available to them will increase their own efficiency by being able to exchange data with their corporate clients, rather than rely on manual processes.

The forward thinkers in both the commercial and legal worlds will prosper if such thinking becomes manifest.  Others will fall by the wayside.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

The world's first automated brief to Counsel?

A milestone was reached last month, nine months since I launched Road Traffic Representation (RTR), an online legal service for people charged with motoring offences.

This service provides a free diagnosis of the likely penalties if convicted, whether there is a risk of disqualification for a 'totting up' disqualification for reaching 12 penalty points in three years, and whether there are any prospects of a defence.

The milestone was the first case running from initial enquiry to disposal at court, with the online process automating virtually the entire case.

The diagnoses offered by RTR are closely tailored to the circumstances of the site visitor, using artificial intelligence to give detailed advice about their case and according to their specific circumstances rather than just generic advice.  Advice on penalties is not simply an indication of maximum penalties, but instead applies Magistrates Courts Sentencing Guidelines to the circumstances of the visitor's case.

The diagnoses are free but if the visitor wants more help there are two paid services on offer, the main ones being expert telephone advice and representation in court by a barrister.  In this particular case, the visitor signed up to the online terms and conditions, paid online a small fixed fee for telephone advice (which is unlimited in time for that call) and received such advice at a time of his choosing.  Notes of the advice are logged on a secure part of the site to which the client has password-protected access and as soon as the notes are logged the client receives an email and text message advising him of that fact.

Here, the client decided that he wanted representation in court.  He answered a series of questions to determine any hearing that had already taken place (there was none) and the nature of the forthcoming hearing.  He was advised automatically of the cost of the imminent hearing given his intention to plead guilty and of any other hearings that might be necessary.  He then paid online, which immediately caused some further automated processes to kick in.

First, Old Bailey Chambers, which partners with RTR either to provide representation themselves or secure the services of a barrister from their network of Chambers, received an automated email advising them of the client's requirement, which then set in place their obligation to allocate a suitable barrister (from an approved list) within 1 working hour.  They have access to a Barristers admin site within RTR and simply select from the list the barrister, who is then allocated to the case.

This does three things.  First, it fires off an automated email and text message to the client advising him of the name of the barrister allocated, along with a link to the barrister's biography and photograph, and detailed guidance about what to do at court, what to bring, etc.  Secondly, the barrister receives an email advising him that there is a brief waiting for him in his virtual 'pigeon hole'.  This leads to the third act in this trilogy.

Upon receipt of the email the barrister selects a link, which causes a brief to be downloaded.  In this case, an 8-page brief in PDF format was produced, detailing all information provided by the client, all of the automated diagnoses, notes of the telephone advice, details of the pleas (there were three offences charged) and notes on mitigation (produced via the client's answers to guided questionnaires) and a statement of means containing automatic calculations.

I really can't say for sure, and I would be grateful if anyone can tell me I am wrong, but I believe this may be the world's first automated brief, or at least detailed brief, to Counsel.

What happened next?  Well, I received a phone call the day before the hearing to tell me that the barrister who was briefed was part heard and that the Judge would not release him.  This happens often in practice, which usually involves a scramble to find someone else, get the papers to him and inform, advise and reassure the client.  Here, Chambers returned to the RTR admin system and simply reallocated the new barrister.  This caused the booking in the system diary to change and a detailed and, I hope, reassuring email and text to be sent to the client advising him of the change, the reason for it, a link to the new barrister's profile and confirmation that she had all the papers and would be fully prepared for the hearing.

Although I knew from extensive testing that this part of the process worked, I had to be sure that there was no hiccup in real life, so I phoned the client, who confirmed receipt of the email and that he fully understood its content and the reasons for the change and felt reassured.

Immediately after the hearing, Counsel phoned me to advise me of a successful outcome and a happy client.  On her return to Chambers, Counsel logged on to the Barristers' section of the admin site and recorded the outcome with full notes, which again caused the client to receive an email and text referring to these details.  It also caused the automatic generation of a receipted invoice.

I was taken unawares by my own reaction to the completion of this process.  I knew from testing that the system worked, but here was a real case that served the client well from beginning to end.  The system took about two years from my initial concept and design to launch (mostly in long evening into night and weekend work while I wasn't doing the day job that helped pay for my development team).  Notwithstanding investment in PR and SEO services, I knew that it would be a very long job in bringing the service to the public consciousness, and remains so.  I expected it to take around a year before the first instructions for representation in court would be received, so it was nice to get a case after nine months.

What took me by surprise was the sheer elation and, I have to confess, a quite emotional reaction to this event.  There have been plenty of times when I doubted the sanity of embarking on this project and whether it would ever take off, and it still has a long way to go, but here was vindication that online legal services can work and do have a future.  I set out to provide a service by which a client would not pay for the pure process of applying the law to the facts of their case and that they would elect to pay only for such services that add real value to them, in this case the reassurance of one to one telephone advice and being represented in court by a skilled advocate.

The best outcome of this for me was the client's attitude to the service.  When I called him I had hoped for expressions of amazement that legal services could be delivered in this way and I was a little disappointed that he said nothing of the kind.  As I reflected on this, however, it dawned on me that his matter of fact assumption that the availability of such a service was the biggest boost he could give me.  The client was no youngster from whom such assumptions could be more expected, but a man in his late thirties who has probably experienced legal services at least once, if only on moving home, and who could be forgiven for thinking that traditional delivery methods were the only ones available.

This has given me greater confidence that the launch of RTR is not premature (as I had worried it might be) and that there is a place for true online legal services now.  I have ambitions to extend the concept to many other areas of law and this one small but highly significant step has encouraged me to think that these are not foolish aims.

I hope that this has not been too much of a ramble and that you will indulge me a few more short lines in thanking all those who have made it possible for me to recount this story.  They include my talented development team at Exen Legal Solutions, the supremely wise and supportive business consultant David Welling, a creative and generous PR consultant Deborah Lewis of The Hero Machine, Nicholas Bull, barrister at Old Bailey Chambers, who provided valuable input and led the testing at Old Bailey Chambers, Senior Clerk Gary Reed who supported the initiative from Day One and Claire Burtwistle, who at the eleventh hour took on the mantle of the world's first barrister to be instructed by automated brief (unless someone puts me right on that).  Last, but definitely not least, my family and friends who always encouraged me and provided willingly such helpful feedback on what was good and not so good about the design and functionality of the site.