Forget high-rise ivory towers, mahogany conference tables, and musky law libraries, law firms of the future will be remote and paperless

A survey of 360 US legal professionals, including attorneys, paralegals and legal IT executives, revealed that US firms have their eyes firmly set on the technology that will help innovate the law offices of
the future.

Law firms have typically been regarded as conservative environments both within and outside the industry. Yet in today’s harsh economic climate, delivering faster, more effective legal services at a lower cost is key. Employing new technology can make lawyers more efficient, reduce billable hours and enable firms to deliver better advice. For clients, this is a win on multiple fronts: better results in less time and at a lower cost.

For firms involved in traditional billable hour work, as opposed to fixed fees, modern technology may represent a short-term issue with fewer billable hours. Yet in the long term, delivering results quicker and at a lower cost, leads to more business from existing clients as well as new business too.

Going mobile

While some firms may expect their associates to be at their desks from before dawn until late in the evening, one in five lawyers, according to the US survey (Eye on Legal Technology, conducted by eFax Corporate in April), see virtual offices and remote employees as the potential norm. To that end, investment in mobile tech is on the rise.

More than one in four US firms have either started to roll out tablets across their business or plan to do so in 2014, while 45 per cent say virtual-office tools have had the biggest technical impact on the profession.

Those lawyers who are allowed to use devices with which they’re already familiar and comfortable, such as iPads, won’t be burdened with additional hardware that’s difficult to use. It could even be argued that firms do a disservice to their employees if they were to discourage easy-to-use software or hardware.

When asked to comment on the changes coming into the legal profession over the next ten years, 35 per cent of respondents to the survey saw firms were set to become entirely paperless, while 20 per cent expected their firms to adopt cloud-based business applications.

Perhaps worrying for the traditionalists who enjoy being surrounded by tomes of precedent, 16 per cent of lawyers believe that the end is in nigh for the venerable law library and expect to see them completely replaced by e-books that can be downloaded and accessed anywhere. One in three respondents advised that their office was already 50 per cent digital and 50 per cent paper.

Security concerns

Of course, it is important for firms to keep at least one eye on data security amid the ever and rapid changes in tech. Some 34 per cent of US lawyers said that network security was their firm’s top tech focus for 2014, while 55 per cent cited document security as an increasing concern.

However, most legal professionals who responded to the survey still use two of the least secure transmission methods as their most frequent means of document exchange (42 per cent use email and 25 per cent traditional mail).

Protecting client and firm information from unwanted access is a huge concern for firms. Cloud computing can help alleviate many security problems by providing an environment in which to secure documents.

Little Britain

While our Atlantic cousins embrace a potentially bright digital future for the profession, what about solicitors in England and Wales? Many firms have started implementing paperless offices, remote networking and cloud computing, although it is debateable whether that is to enable greater flexibility in contacting clients or simply so associates can bill more hours.

Hampshire firm Moore Blatch recently revealed its new will-writing service via the video instant messaging service Skype. The firm expects the service to appeal to a wide range of prospective clients who may prefer to set up or revise a will quickly and easily from their home computer. At the same time, Skype will enable the firm to follow its code of practice, which dictates that they should see clients face to face.

Clients are given the option of visiting the office or of having a home visit to sign documents. And, if there is any question as to the capacity or vulnerability of the individual concerned, such as undue influence, the usual precautions of a visit in person and a capacity report from a suitably qualified medical practitioner are used.

Introducing Skype as a platform offers clients an extra option. Written correspondence can be done electronically, even to the point where final versions are sent by email. Clients then print and execute the will following guidance notes supplied to them and return the originals for the firm to check and store.

Carla Brown, partner at Moore Blatch, said: “Skype is an ideal tool with which those too busy to find legal support on the high street can make a will. We believe there are many ways in which the legal profession can benefit from today’s advances in technology and are embracing the use of Skype and other forms of video conferencing for legal work.”

Following the firm’s announcement SJ spoke to the firm’s marketing director, Clare Fanner, who said: “I would love to say that we are ahead of the game. Engagement in technology is questionable and its use has to benefit both us and the client. Skype has been in existence for 11 years but we are only now just talking about it as a tool.”

Fanner believes that firms need to consider both client service and client convenience. “Nine-to-five is not the modern world and firms need to recognise that,” she said. “The traditional firm on the high street is no longer the norm. We need to be able to adapt to clients. Of course, any engagement has to be done carefully in order to comply with the profession’s code of practice, but it shouldn’t prevent us from thinking in the client space.”

As to whether or not this service has provided any new leads, Fanner said that they have already received a lot of interest internationally, especially from expats. “There is definitely a market out there for solicitors,” she added.

App prevalence

Downloadable apps created by firms for clients, while currently few and far between, may become more prevalent. There are a number of family law apps already on the market such as Mills & Reeve’s Divorce UK or Divorce? by OGR Stock Denton.

Employment law is also well served with Work Rights by 36 Bedford Row or Eversheds’ Guide to International Employment and Pensions Law for HR professionals. Even if firms are reluctant to invest in producing bespoke apps, they can still take advantage of others in the market, such as Pocket Witness produced by expert witness practice Trevor Gilbert & Associates, which will be launched soon.

Firms needing to reduce costs and allow for a more mobile workforce, while also protecting client information should consider adopting new technologies that have a synergy with their practices to stay competitive.

What’s the next investment for firms? Could we see solicitors donning shiny new pairs of the world’s most anticipated wearable tech, Google Glass?

Rise of the machines

John van der Luit-Drummond is legal reporter for Solicitors Journal

“When I was a fresh-faced graduate, I worked at one high-street firm whose senior partner insisted on keeping an antiquated typewriter in his office just in case the computers crashed or the internet ‘stopped working.

“I remember debating long and hard whether to tell him that many of the forms and documents his practice required were only available to download, complete and submit online, so if the machines did decide to take over, his revered old typewriter would be of little use.

“Still, I started to wonder about the consequences for firms if they experienced a cataclysmic tech failure. Should the worst happen, would they still be able to operate? What safeguards should firms have in place?

“Another firm I worked at – a large firm with a national presence and an IT department to match – had every conceivable technology in place for its fee earners to work effectively. From remote working, to case management systems, to digital law libraries and cloud computing, it seemed to have it all.

“Unfortunately, all these resources were for nought when one summer the head once experienced repeated and sustained blackouts because of road and engineering works directly outside. We all found it difficult to hit our billing targets sat in the dark.

“New technology is great and should be used if firms are to grow. But having a failsafe in place, just in case, is something to think about.”

This article was first published in the Solicitors Journal on 2 June 2014 and is reproduced with kind permission.