Timing, appetite, gaps and communities: 6 months in legal services innovation

December 1 marks my sixth month at the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA). Fresh out of aviation and its painful demise thanks to the pandemic, I have been getting stuck into the world of Legaltech and supporting the SRA’s strategic objective around increasing the adoption of technology in legal services. There’s much to learn and there’s no better way to reflect than with a few thoughts.

It all began with a great piece of timing

Less than six weeks after joining the SRA, the research partnership with Oxford University came to fruition with the launch of their Innovation and Technology in Legal Services report on 27 July. It’s a masterpiece, drawing out four main challenge areas from firms (funding, skills, business benefit and regulatory uncertainties) based on nearly 900 survey responses and over 50 interviews. What’s most notable is that it is an indisputable reflection of the legal services industry, not the view of the regulator. It’s what law firms have said. I’ve run a presentation on the research three times since in public and it has strongly informed our business plan into next year.

The appetite for running trials and pilots is very strong

Those who know me well will have heard me talking about the trial being the foundation of innovation. Innovation is all about the trial: it evidences the benefit, highlights the risk, and tells the story (particularly valuable for abstract technology such as AI). I’m delighted that response to this has been uniformly positive, from law firms, startups and regulators I’ve spoken with.

The SRA has had success in running large scale pilots, where we bring together a cohort of law firms (and tech vendors if needed) and study a tech theme or challenge before sharing the results. The Quality Indicators pilot laid the groundwork for this and our team have just got a new pilot underway, looking at “unbundled services” (splitting the workload between a client and lawyer) using a similar methodology. It will surface the benefits and insights that the industry has been asking for.

The gap between the top and the bottom is vast

In my experience, every industry has the same challenge: the people who need the most help and support use the least tech and are the hardest to reach. It’s apparent that there is an enormous breadth in technology capability around legal services, and it’s not always the smaller firms struggling the most.

I wasn’t able to attend the Legal Geek conference this year so caught up on the videos. The content was really impressive but what struck me the most was the plywood stage, casual jeans and T-shirts of the presenters and how it’s a whole universe away from traditional practices. A CMA report provided evidence that certain types of law is becoming commoditised, particularly in conveyancing, where repeatable tasks, access to automation, and the client taking some of the burden of the work could mean some firms simply disappear.

And yet, last month I spoke to a small firm in Wales who started with a cloud-based case management platform, use DropBox for their documents and matter work, and provide laptops for staff. Their founder said he didn’t think he was being particularly innovative, but in fact, had built in an incredible amount of resilience to his practice. While at LegalEx too, a partner of a firm told me how going fully remote was going to save £16,000 per month on rent for three offices. There is innovation at all levels, but there are those who need more support.

There is a fantastic regulation community

I’ve been enjoying learning from the SRA’s peers in regulation. Alongside BEIS‘ Regulators Innovation Network, that covers all corners of industry and government, the regulators within the Legal Services Board (the oversight regulator) have shared amazing experience and expertise in what they do. Partnerships abound, including some with funding such as BEIS’ Regulators’ Pioneer Fund that the SRA have been successful with.

Technology is leading the change in all these sectors so it’s great to learn from and find common ground with others. And just like my experience throughout a career in technology, you learn the most by talking to customers, end users and industry specialists.

[Image credit: Lawyers Weekly Australia]

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