LawFest organiser Andrew King continues a series of interviews with key legal professionals with their innovation and technology stories.
Tamina Cunningham-Adams is the Co-Founder & Director at Evolution Lawyers.
What does legal innovation mean to you?
Legal innovation is the continual evolution of legal practice. Innovation may occur by adopting or developing processes to better serve client needs. It can enable a firm to reduce waste and compete more efficiently in the market. Legal innovation is far wider than just technological innovation, however. There are many ways that a firm can innovate without spending significantly on digital technologies.
What role does technology play in innovation?
Technology is a key part of innovation in all industries. It changes practices and procedures, which can also affect the people within those industries. In some ways, the legal profession has been slow to adopt many of the technological developments embraced by other industries much earlier. For example, electronic signing, cloud-based data storage, video conferencing, digital templates, and digital marketing. Perhaps this is why some criticise the legal profession and the continuation of expensive, cumbersome, and paper-based practice.
That said, technology is not the only way to innovate practice. There are firms that appear to still serve their clients well, despite using outdated technology like fax machines and avoiding accepted technologies like email. While they may not be innovating in a technological sense, perhaps they are innovating legal practice by investing more in effective communication, face-to-face dealings, updating their clients more frequently, collaborating with other firms, or perhaps charging fees that are far lower than the average.
I believe that technology has a large part to play in legal innovation. However, there are lots of ways to embrace technology, and lots of ways to innovate without adopting technology, especially the expensive technologies.
What pressures are organisations facing in the delivery of legal services?
Increasing regulatory compliance and the constant threats of digital intrusion are two overriding issues for solicitors, especially those with trust accounts. The costs of practising in an AML/CFT environment is challenging, as is complying with our duties to report under various legislation. Changes to property tax and overseas investment rules have increased the number of documents required for simple property transactions. Some practitioners will charge more as a result of time; some firms will simply bear the cost internally.
Digital intrusion is a real issue. Intrusions can be slow and insidious. There could be a keylogger taking note of every word you type or a virus forwarding every email sent from or received by your account to another, controlled email account, all without your knowledge. Practices must be vigilant and proactive, and stay up-to-date with the creative ways hackers and thieves are using digital technologies to intrude into systems. Updating systems immediately, training your staff to spot issues and report them early, and adopting other proactive digital safety measures, could be the key to avoiding business interruption, comprised devices, breach of privacy, confidence, and privilege, and incorrect disbursements of client funds.
What developments do you see in how legal services are delivered?
There appears to be a trend towards using bots to interact with clients. This is an interesting technological development that may be beneficial for people who do not like communicating with people. However, in my experience, clients still want to speak with a real person, especially if they consider their issue to be stressful or significant. For example, in dispute resolution many clients simply want to know that we have got their back or that someone is in their corner. They are looking for empathy, assurance, confidence, and other things best provided by human beings.
Culturally, there are many who prefer to do business ‘kanohi ki te kanohi’ or face-to-face. So, while bots may have their place, such as dealing with routine communications and non-contentious work, I question whether clients feel special when their first interaction is with a bot. While lawyers should use every tool at their disposal to provide better client service, including automated technologies in many cases, the service provider should be a person whenever possible, in my view at least.
What opportunities has legal innovation brought you?
Evolution Lawyers has adopted or developed whatever technologies or innovations we believe we need to provide the type of legal service modern clients would expect. Our aim is to practise as leanly and agile as possible. By simplifying practice, our lawyers have more bandwidth to work on legal problems and complete tasks accurately. Administration and paperwork can burden a legal mind significantly, and the cost of a person to attend to that administration is significant for small businesses.
We are fortunate that many of our clients have similar philosophies to us. For example, Evolution Lawyers works closely with Arizto Real Estate, a company that documents and processes its residential property contracts digitally. Like us, they have an in-house software development team. By working and keeping pace with innovative clients, we create opportunities for our young firm.
What are some of your tips to start innovating or developing an innovative mindset?
Keep it simple – identify a problem and find a solution. We do not need to be tech-experts to do this in practice. Indeed, this is what lawyers do on a daily basis. Many of Evolution Lawyers’ innovations have come from having to deal with something unsatisfactory in existing, normal practice. Rather than tolerating the issue, we find a way to fix it – immediately, if possible.
There are many excellent, cost-effective steps that firms could take right now. For example, two-step authentication, digital signing, legal working day calculators, and more. Some of those benefits are free. One just has to investigate and try them.
Work with professional developers. As lawyers, we see the consequences of the bush lawyer or the legal dabbler trying to do their own legal work. We engage a competent professional to build our software, so that it can be maintained by any professional in the future. For us, we see it as a risk to build sustainable software ourselves, and a heavy time commitment to learn to code. So, we leave that job to the experts.
Why is it important for legal professionals to continue to learn about legal innovation and leveraging technology?
Lawyers should be continually learning. That is part of being a professional. Legal innovation is part of that continual learning practice. Like anything, the more you know, the more you can leverage that knowledge to create opportunity and benefit for yourself and others.