How many times lately have you heard expressions such as “The legal sector is ripe for disruption”? And upon hearing such a statement did you a) rush off to acquaint yourself with the many forms this disruption will take b) roll your eyes and thank goodness that the Bar is largely immune from technological transformation or c) check your calendar (again) to work out how many weeks it is until you can retire?
The legal sector as a whole is undergoing radical transformation, driven by government, driven by technology, and driven by the changes taking place in sectors such as financial services, where automation of routine legal work – irrespective of legal complexity – is now commonplace.
Whereas once futurologist Professor Richard Susskind’s ideas seemed to many in the legal market to be interesting and a little bit far-fetched, they are now coming to pass. Online courts are becoming a reality. Chatbots are already providing free information on the law. And back office processes are being streamlined and moved into the cloud, as new entrants and legal tech startups put pressure on longstanding providers to look at new ways of offering legal services.
The Bar is not immune. But it is far from doom and gloom: these developments are opening up access to justice in ways that previously could not have been hoped for.
Online court system
In July 2016, Lord Justice Briggs published his final report into the structure of the civil courts, as part of which he backed an Online Court for straightforward money claims valued at up to £25,000.
The new court would be designed to be used by people with minimum assistance from lawyers, with the expectation that it will eventually become compulsory for cases of up to £25,000.
The concept of an online court first emerged in the UK in the February 2015 report “Online Dispute Resolution for Low Value Civil Claims” submitted by a group chaired by Professor Susskind.
It is still the topic of fierce debate, amid concerns that court users needing to use the Online Court will be denied access as a result of facing technical difficulties. However, other countries such as Holland and Canada have begun to incorporate online elements into their judicial systems and among leading tech companies such as eBay, online dispute resolution (ODR) solves around 60 million disagreements, 90% through automation.
Running in parallel to the government-led ODR initiative, there have been interesting legal tech startup offerings. In June last year, we saw the launch of Ajuve, an online dispute resolution service that claims it will revolutionise the settlement of disputes.
A fast-track online alternative to court, Ajuve is designed to enable small businesses and individuals to resolve contractual disputes quickly and effectively.
Co-founded by father and son duo, Alex and Quentin Bargate, Ajuve is a low-cost and entirely online system that takes users through every stage of a dispute, from making a complaint through to resolution and award via an independent arbitrator.
Alongside the core arbitration service, which promises to deliver binding awards in no more than six weeks and charges an up-front fee based on the amount in dispute, Ajuve also provides a settlement calculator along with a dispute resolution clause, available to download for free, which businesses can include in contracts should a dispute arise in the future. The startup plans to add an online mediation module to the site in the coming months.
Ajuve faces competition from the EU Online Dispute Resolution Platform for online traders, which is part of the Commission’s single digital market initiative and went live on 15 February 2016.
It follows the launch in the US of Modria, a Silicon Valley online dispute resolution company founded on PayPal and eBay technology that made headlines in 2015 after The Associated Press (AP) called it “the next wave of technology in which the law is turned into computer code that can solve legal battles without the need for a judge or attorney.”
Modria is a cloud-based platform founded in 2011 by Colin Rule and Chittu Nagarajan – also founders of the online dispute resolution systems at eBay and PayPal.
Through its ‘resolution center’ Modria collects customer information and the details of their complaint. It then maps that information to a corporate’s resolution rules, including policies on refunds, returns, exchanges and chargeback policies, before delivering a resolution.
Unhappy high value customers with no previous disputes may be offered an automatic partial refund and a gift card to retain their business, while the site facilitates a dialogue between the seller and customer to resolve more complex disputes.
Officials in Ohio use Modria’s software to resolve disputes over tax assessments outside of court, while other clients include the American Arbitration Association and the Dutch Legal Aid Board.
Overhaul the back office
Outsourcing is always a controversial topic within the legal profession but the last few years have seen credible tech-led support offerings spring up that can reduce Chambers’ workload and significantly cut costs.
In late 2016, we saw the launch of TotalCounselNow, an all-in-one outsourced service from call handling provider ServicesNowGroup, which provides a range of services to support individual barristers or chambers, including transcription, copy-typing, call handling, reception services, fee management and diary management services.
Longstanding online clerk services include Clerksroom and myBarrister, which in 2014 became the first direct access online portal to launch a dedicated app available on both the Apple and Android platforms. The app enables users to search and select the most appropriate barrister for their legal issue.
Clerksroom also has its own app, promising fast and multitrack advocates for every court from leading national chambers and flexible fees and budgets.
Absolute Barrister, founded in 2013 by husband and wife barristers Katy and Simon Gittins, supplies unbundled legal services using barristers, for a fixed fee agreed in advance, underpinned by technology.
These new entrants are regarded by many as a threat to the traditional Chambers model but have the potential to open up access to justice. In July 2015, The Bar Council itself bought a 50% stake in The Direct Access Portal, putting consumers and businesses directly in touch with a barrister, mediator or arbitrator.
This is part of a wider trend and effort by The Bar Council (reflective of similar moves by the Law Society and Solicitors Regulation Authority) to encourage greater public choice and visibility of the profession.
Chambers disrupt thyself
New types of online services can only be expected to increase but Chambers are also notably disrupting themselves. In 2015, immigration set Richmond Chambers LLP – authorized by the SRA as the first barrister-only ABS in July 2013 – redefined the clerks room, replacing it with a suite of low-cost, cloud-based case and financial management systems and its marketing function with multiple websites, blogs and social media channels.
All members of chambers are provided with a notebook, wireless keyboard, wireless mouse and a second monitor for split screen working. Chambers is fully networked, ensuring that all team members have access to both a high-speed internet connection and the capability to print directly from, and scan directly to, their PC. Individual members also have access to a range of mobile devices that facilitate remote working.
The Chambers also uses a file hosting service which offers cloud storage and file synchronisation capabilities. Rather than storing original client documents in chambers, all documents are scanned and then returned to the client. Electronic copies are then hosted in secure online files. The files are accessible via a folder on a PC, or through a dedicated website and mobile app.
The set has invited client feedback to be published online on independent review sites, all of which are signposted from Richmond Chambers’ home page and in email signatures.
More sets can be expected to move their technology into the cloud, which has the huge advantage of being available as a service for a simple license fee (that can be increased and decreased easily), rather than necessitating a major infrastructure project.
Client-facing knowledge management opportunities
Legal knowledge is arguably the capital of the legal profession and technology is facilitating new ways of delivering it far beyond the traditional client base.
In December 2016, FromCounsel formally launched in the UK, backed by 22 members of Erskine Chambers and 15 PSLs and already subscribed to by some of the biggest law firms in the industry.
FromCounsel provides commentary and analysis on English corporate law – both legislation and key updates – in an online Q&A format underpinned by an intelligent search function.
Chaired by former Orange general counsel Mark Paterson, FromCounsel users can opt for three different levels of detail. The ‘full fat’ service provides practitioners with comprehensive and analytical coverage of a topic, while ‘semi’ gives broad coverage and a textbook level of detail and ‘skimmed’ a brief overview of the topic, ideal for reading up on an unfamiliar area.
Subscribing firms are said to include Bird & Bird, Clifford Chance, Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton, Davis Polk & Wardwell, Macfarlanes, Michelmores, Morrison & Foerster, Norton Rose Fulbright, Pinsent Masons, PwC LLP, Shearman & Sterling, Simmons & Simmons, Stevens & Bolton and Travers Smith.
It is a new way of packaging up and delivering legal advice in a format that users are now used to consuming information.
What’s coming down the track
It is true that the legal profession has traditionally been slow to react to change but it is important to keep abreast of what is coming down the track.
In October 2016, a trio of Cambridge law students announced the launch of what is being touted as ‘the world’s most advanced legal chatbot’, called LawBot.
LawBot provides free information on criminal law, using a series of questions to help users determine whether they have been a victim of crime.
LawBot helps to ascertain, in natural language, what crime has been committed. It also directs users to the nearest police station. Perhaps most interestingly, LawBot is being taught to give ‘empathetic’ responses and the introduction of randomized responses ensures that no two conversations will ever be the same. The LawBot team is working on teaching it ‘emotions’ – soon, it will be able to recognize if you sound angry or sad, and comfort you accordingly, treating users “with compassion and sensitivity.”
It is very early days for this type of technology. But that doesn’t mean the legal profession should lull itself into a fall sense of security that change isn’t coming. The best practice is to keep an open mind and continually explore the art of the possible.
By Caroline Hill, Editor, Legal IT Insider