The way in which technology has progressed over the last decade is phenomenal. Technological advances and digitalisation have significantly impacted all industries as businesses need to take advantage of the changes if they want to remain competitive. The effect that this has had upon the legal industry is particularly interesting when understanding how a lawyer’s role has adapted as a result.
Many law firms are beginning to use ‘legal document automation’ – a process that can quickly generate standard documents, such as contracts, from an existing template. Referring to the creation of a contract, lawyers would answer a series of questions relating to the document and their answers would in turn populate or eliminate certain clauses. They are then left with a more concise document that is unique to their client’s requirement, which can then be further amended to include specific clauses and information. Legal document automation not only saves times, but also ensures a high level of accuracy by reducing the risk of mistakes that are very common with manual drafting. Moreover, a lot of the software providers enable firms to store their documents and templates in an online database through the use of cloud computing, thereby making it more secure and accessible to those who need it.
After the financial crash, many law firms changed their billing structures to accommodate money-conscious clients and also to appear to provide cost-effective and efficient solutions to legal needs. Fixed-fee structures have increased as a result and the adoption of legal document automation feeds very well into this model. The time saved with creating documents means that lawyers are quickly able to focus on other areas of a case and ultimately meet the client’s needs a lot faster - the knock-on effect being that they are able to increase productivity and take on more work.
However, a lot of law firms continue to bill clients by the hour – a payment structure that may not work as favourably with document automation as it means that less time will be billed. Moreover, many still remain sceptical to changing a process that has been in place and worked for a very long time. The legal profession has been hailed as an industry that still has room fully engage with and take advantage of the new technologies that are available. In a profession where minimising risk is paramount, it is no surprise if lawyers are less open to big changes. We can only wait to see whether legal document automation becomes more widely used.
One cannot talk about the impact of technology on the legal industry without mentioning how significantly it has facilitated communication. Thanks to smartphones, lawyers can now be reached 24/7, pretty much all over the world, consequently blurring global boundaries. The quality of client service and demand increases as clients can expect answers to queries in a matter of minutes rather than having to wait until the next business day.
Skype for Business is a prime example of how advantageous communication technology can be. The software programme has eased cross-border meetings and conferences by enabling up to 250 people to simply dial in and participate no matter where they are, using either audio or video settings. Computer and laptop screens can be shared for reference and with the audio settings, the name of the speaker lights up so others can see directly who is speaking without the requirement to introduce yourself each time. There is also the possibility to integrate Skype with an office’s telephone system, whereby external calls will be made as usual, but received via Skype as opposed to a telephone. Consolidating the majority of a firm’s means of communication with one program is highly effective as it has the ability to increase productivity among teams who may be situated in different office locations across the world. It also accommodates for individuals who work from home, while saving time and money by reducing the need to travel (although face-to-face meetings are still sometimes necessary).
ONLINE LEGAL LIBRARIES
Accessibility appears to be a key driver of the changes that firms and chambers are adopting and making legal libraries more accessible are certainly no exception. Digitalised texts are becoming increasingly common, now that there has been a great movement to the use of online legal libraries. Legal research companies such as Westlaw and LexisNexis offer such services by storing legislation and a wide range of legal information in an online database. Once again, time efficiency is the greatest advantage of such technology. Lawyers can quickly search for the information that they require and then filter the results or conduct a further, more advanced search with the click of a button.
E-copies of practitioners’ texts, such as Chitty on Contracts and the White Book, have also become more widely available on such systems and offer the same advantages. The practicality of being able to access these texts from most devices means that researching and referencing have become a lot easier. This saves a lot of time when compared to manually flicking through pages of hard copies and gives individuals the reassurance that they are using the latest editions of texts and the most up-to-date legislation and information.
Technology is developing at a very fast pace which means it will continue to interact with and affect the legal industry in many ways. Law practices will need to adapt well to these changes if they are to remain competitive in a digitalised world and offer their clients the most efficient services. Already, the advances in digitalised documents, ease of communication and accessibility of online legal libraries have significantly changed the way lawyers work. It will be fascinating to see what more future technologies can do.
By Nadia Aumeer