Lawyers, technology, data analysis and the future

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In my experience, there was been a reluctance to employ new technology to improve how legal firms do business. The President of the Law Society (in England and Wales), Christina Blacklaws, has made it her business to change all that.

‘I want solicitors to take a positive approach and see the evolution of technology not as a disruptive influence, but as an opportunity to be seized,’ Christina said in an interview with the Artificial Lawyer website, earlier this year.

As Head of Innovation with Family Law Partners, I have been dealing with technology for quite some time. So, I thought it might be useful to discuss my experience with an eye to the future.

Reluctance to adopt new technology

The first thing to say is that I echo the inference made by Christina Blacklaws: lawyers have been slow, if not downright reluctant, to seize on technology. In general, they do not willingly delegate expertise.

That said, there does now seem a greater acceptance that data analytics, AI and machine learning – and probably at some point, blockchain technologies – have something valuable to offer the profession.

The benefits of using data

At Family Law Partners, data analytics has been a game-changer for us. It’s helped create a better service for clients and also enabled real costs savings.

By using a triage system (basically using a secure online form) to collect client data we have been able to find patterns and influences that would not be easily deduced in a typical face-to-face, one-to-one client consultation or collated via most mainstream case management systems.

Let me give you an example.

Using granularity to improve customer services

A cursory examination of our cases over the last 7 years suggested that domestic violence was not a significant factor in our caseloads. We mainly deal with finances or with children. We had a mere handful of cases focussed on remedies for domestic violence. Consequently, the ‘domestic violence profile’ must be extremely low, we thought.

However, when we looked at the data collected in our triage system using a data analysis tool – IBM’s Watson Analytics – a different picture emerged. We saw that a significant proportion of our client demographic reported domestic violence as a background feature in their cases.

Although the clients were not insisting we do something about it – they wanted us to focus on something else – this otherwise neglected information allowed us to consider certain questions.

Had the background domestic violence inhibited a client’s ability to instruct us on financial settlement? Was there some subtle element of duress at play during negotiations over child arrangements?

If we had not been able to dig into the data, using analytics technology, then we would never have been as mindful of this factor or re-focussed our internal training to raise staff consciousness. This is one example of data analytics providing actionable insights.

Cost savings

Through data analysis, Family Law Partners has also been able to build a better picture of outcomes and costs, depending on the legal route a client decides to take. By anonymising the data, and analysing multiple variables, we’ve reduced a lot of the guesswork when it comes to assessing costs or duration of a case.

That, in turn, saves us time in creating letters of engagement, in which costs and duration are outlined to clients. I estimate that, through this process, we have been able to make a not-insubstantial saving of around £55,000 per annum.

And we’re only a small firm; we just fall outside the EU definition of a ‘microbusiness’.

I really believe that any firm, no matter what its size, can benefit from data analysis – and that’s just the beginning of using technology in a legal practice.

Robot lawyers?

This brings me to another issue that comes up in discussions around technology and lawyers. As with most sectors, there is a fear that the humans are going to be replaced with robots. Or the technology will undermine the profession.

Clearly, technology is going to have an impact on the legal profession and I would not be surprised if some areas transformed completely. Property conveyancing seems particularly vulnerable to me. I can definitely foresee some elements of blockchain technology replacing the manual components in the service delivery.

Yet, despite all the alarming talk about robots, when it comes to legal representation, I believe the value (ironically!) will actually shift to the personal touch.

It comes down to how you connect with another person as a human being; how you demonstrate that you can negotiate on their behalf; how you have understood their anxieties; how you can deliver on their expectations.

But what about security?

When it comes to hackers or data breaches, there is always going to be a potential vulnerability for any commercial outfit, including legal practices. But I don’t think there is any greater risk from working digitally than there is from people just not thinking through how they handle even paper data.

We need to provide the convenience of digital working practices but also make sure that the data we use is secure. In that way, GDPR has been good because it has made a lot more people sit up and take notice of the data they handle. It compels them to have audits in place for safety checks.

In conclusion

Family Law Partners’ experience of using data analysis has given us the ability to capture what is important about client journeys: what is often hidden beneath the surface. Rather than undermine our practice, it has enhanced it. There is no reason why any other practice – big or small – by using its data smartly (and with client consent, of course) cannot achieve similar outcomes.

As Christina Blacklaws has suggested: technology should not be an obstacle, but an opportunity.

In conjunction with IBM, I will be participating in the webinar ‘Using Analytics to improve your legal practice’ taking place on the 11th September. Please register here for this free event.

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