A primer on the transformations in the business of law for aspiring legal professionals
[By Ankur Gupta]

The author is a law lecturer with Temasek Business School at Temasek Polytechnic in Singapore. Besides facilitating learning and conducting research in various areas of law, he has a keen interest in monitoring how the business of law may change bringing with it changing expectations of employers on Skills of lawyers and other professionals working in the legal services sector. He can be reached at Ankur.gup@gmail.com or on LinkedIn.

Introduction

The Business Standard recently carried a report[i] on the how certain law firms in India are at the cusp of engaging and experimenting with applications powered by transformative technology such as Artificial Intelligence (AI).   This ‘think anew, act anew’ mantra informing the business of law stems from global trends shaping the operating environment of law firms.

The operating environment, globally, for businesses and in turn for law firms is being transformed on account of novel applications of transformative technologies like AI, Internet of Things (IoT) and Blockchain amongst others.  The chief catalyst for technological transformation impacting law firms are the consumers of legal services, especially multinationals and other heavyweight clients who themselves are in the process of digitization and revamping their own processes and products in a bid to remain competitive. Application of AI, IoT and Cloud Computing and other transformative technologies is playing a vital role. Arguably, these consumers are increasingly demanding that providers of legal services innovate the delivery of legal services, be it law firms or their own in-house legal counsels.

This piece discusses broad trends associated with how law firms are positioning themselves in an increasingly crowded market where they must compete with a host of traditional and non-traditional rivals for the same pie of business. It is hoped that this will spur aspiring lawyers and other readers to engage with developments innovation in the business of law given the potential for new career opportunities for law graduates and experienced non law professionals as a by-product of such innovation.

The article is jurisdiction agnostic, a reflection of the trend that the innovation and disruption in legal service delivery and legal business models is borderless.

Legal Innovation: a demand for value innovation by law firm clients

Technological change is not new, neither is disruption. Industries, jobs and economies have transformed on account of innovative technology since the Industrial Revolution, if not earlier. What is, perhaps, different is that change is multi-layered: a series of small and significant changes which add to the complexity.  Such change is charecterised by emergence of new products, new players and new processes which in turn impact and give rise to issues for legal practice, legal education as well as regulators.  This paper limits the discussion to legal innovation and its relevance for law firms.

On the availability of new products, it worth noting that legal tech tools are available in almost every area of legal practice[ii].  What is also noteworthy about this proliferation is that several legal tech tools are designed not necessarily with the lawyers in mind but for mass consumption. One example is online dispute resolution and management platforms which are touted as ‘self-service sites and dialogue tools’ promising convenience, cost savings and accessibility to disputing parties[iii]. The efficacy and customizability of generic applications is progressively evolving with greater usage and user feedback flowing back to developers.

Lawyers are professionals and law firms are businesses providing solutions to clients. Technology is a means to this end.  How law firms service their clients and continue to provide ‘value’ and ‘value innovation’ is mediated by technology. Clients in the B2B segment i.e. businesses which engage law firms are increasingly concerned about the efficiency of law firms in offering their services. This is perhaps a pressure point for law firms. Another trend forcing law firms to re-think their offerings to make them more appealing as many large clients seek ‘full service’ solutions rather than piecemeal legal advice which has been the case so far. One example of ‘Value Innovation’ is how the Big4 are offering legal services to their clients leveraging on in-house multi-disciplinary expertise delivered by teams of legal practitioners working alongside accountants, auditors, management consultants and other domain experts.

This is where technology, process improvement, resourcing and project management are assuming importance in a law firm context[iv].  Established multinational law firms such as Clifford Chance, Linklaters, Dentons Rodyk as well as several national and regional law firms seem to be joining the legal innovation bandwagon, leveraging technology atop their brand, domain expertise and reach to in the face of competition from non-law firm service providers vying a slice of the lucrative pie for legal services markets across jurisdictions.

Perhaps most notable about the ongoing transformation of the business of law is the proliferation of Alternate Legal Service Providers (ALSPs) often characterized as impinging on turf traditionally ‘belonging’ to law firms.  At the most basic level, some ALSPs are offering self-service apps for clients to create simple legal documents, thereby ‘commoditizing’ legal services and removing the lawyer from the picture[v]. A wider suite of products on offer includes access to platforms which enable consumers of legal services to resolve disputes online, access to subscription-based software to build contracts and consultancy on automation of workflows and processes, protracting the potential for distermediating[vi] law firms. Developments in legal innovation also catching attention of legal academics globally

Legal Innovation and Academia

Attempts to capture legal innovation, as an academic subject matter, are also on the rise. Stanford Law School’s Techindex is a unique compilation of legal innovation describes on the website as “a curated list of 1211 companies changing the way legal is done”[vii]. In Asia, the Singapore Academy of Law (SAL) teamed up with the Singapore Management University (SMU) publishing two editions of State of Legal Innovation Report aimed at covering developments in legal innovation and legal technology development in nations across the Asia Pacific.  Beyond reports and compilations, formation of multi-disciplinary, cross border groupings such as Asia-Pacific Legal Innovation and Technology Association (ALITA)[viii] aimed at foster collaboration around legal innovation are a sign of increasing interest and involvement in legal innovation from diverse quarters including technology companies, inventors, industry associations and regulators in addition to law firms.

Implications for aspiring legal professionals

For those who aspire to join the ranks of law firm lawyers, studying global trends and changing expectations of large clients around efficiency and demands for value proposition from law firms makes sense, as most large law firms in India and elsewhere rely on their corporate sector clientele for revenue, hence it is unlikely that they can ignore client demands for value innovation.

The sea change for law firms and lawyers is yielding new job roles and forcing re-think about existing job roles of lawyers in both law firm and in-house contexts[ix]. For the law student or newly qualified lawyer being proactive in attempting to understand the how the business of law will re-organize will be important in making smart career choices. In this context, keeping up with technological development impacting legal processes and tasks performed by lawyers matter[x].  But also understanding how the business of law is being reshaped by new and established players.

For instance, one cannot afford to ignore trends like competition from ALSPs and chipping away of the law firm share of the legal market by established professional services firms like PwC, KPMG, Ernst&Young and Deloitte. Many internships and job opportunities could be created as an alternartive to a law firms career for aspiring and experienced legal professionals.  Also, lawyer job roles in law firms may not look the same in a few years time.

The job roles for lawyers will have to adapt to how the business of law changes. Proactively tracking such changes in law firm hiring patters by speaking to insiders, headhunters and studying job advertisements posted by law firms  for lawyers should reveal insights into  how law firms are adapting to new ways and emerging expectations of their clients.

To end with some cautionary advice.  Much hype and oversimplification exists around lawyers being replaced by AI.  No one however can predict such an outcome with certainty, lest they have the power of foresight. Therefore navigating the hype around transformative technologies and the impact on jobs and business will be critical for any student of law or legal professional. To do so will require not just a broad awareness of technological and related developments impacting legal professionals, but understanding and appreciating how the transformative technologies work by studying their application across industries. It will be paramount to exercise analytical faculties in engaging with diverse narratives surrounding legal innovation and its promise in order to maintain a realistic view of the evolution of legal innovation.

 

[i] Aashish Aryan, Law firms take baby steps in AI , Business Standard (Aug. 21, 2019, at: https://www.business-standard.com/article/technology/law-firms-take-baby-steps-in-ai-to-increase-efficiency-and-cut-costs-119082101540_1.html

[ii] Lawgeex, The Legal Tech Buyer’s Guide – 2018 Edition, at: https://www.lawgeex.com/resources/buyersguide/

[iii] Businesswire, Tyler Technologies Expands Online Dispute Resolution to British Columbia, Canada, Financial Post (Jul. 30,  2019), at:  https://business.financialpost.com/pmn/press-releases-pmn/business-wire-news-releases-pmn/tyler-technologies-expands-online-dispute-resolution-to-british-columbia-canada

[iv] Shanice Choo, TechLaw Fest 2019: 5 ways to be a future-ready lawyer, (Sep. 11, 2019), at:

https://blog.appliedsolutions.cliffordchance.com/post/102fqlz/techlaw-fest-2019-5-ways-to-be-a-future-ready-lawyer

[v]Tay Peck Geck, Legaltech and the law: How tech will change the practice, The Business Times (Mar 2, 2019), at: https://www.businesstimes.com.sg/brunch/legaltech-and-the-law-how-tech-will-change-the-practice

[vi] Sam Skolnik IBM Watson in Quiet Talks with Law firms to Expand AI Offerings, Bloomberg Law (Feb. 1, 2019), at https://biglawbusiness.com/ibm-watson-in-quiet-talks-with-law-firms-to-expand-ai-offerings

[vii] Stanford Law School, Standford CodeX Techindex  at: https://techindex.law.stanford.edu

[viii]  Josh Lee, New Regional Association Unites Region’s Legal and Technology Innovators, Lawtech.Asia (Sep. 11, 2019), at: https://lawtech.asia/new-regional-association-unites-regions-legal-and-technology-innovators/

[ix] Ankur Gupta, Shifting Contours of Being a Legal Professional, Law Gazette (Feb. 11, 2019), at: https://lawgazette.com.sg/practice/practice-matters/shifting-contours-of-being-a-legal-professional/

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