Artificial Lawyer recently caught up with Jonathan Patterson, Development Director, at UK law firm DWF, whose remit includes innovation and legal tech adoption.
Many of the interviews here are with legal tech founders, but, at the end of the day it’s the lawyers and senior support teams who are buying, implementing and making use of the new wave of legal tech.
So, it was great to hear from someone at the coal face of trying to improve the internal operations and client service of a large law firm and how decisions about legal tech innovation are made – and also to hear a bit about ‘lawyer whispering’.
First, please can you tell us about your role at DWF? What does a Development Director do inside a law firm?
My role was created to ensure we keep focused on future developments in the market, alongside the usual short term operational performance focus. It is directly aligned to one of the main elements of our vision ‘to be a legal business that is doing things differently’ and covers the three broad areas of Research & Development, Innovation and Service Design.
What kinds of tasks does a normal day consist of? What are you looking for in terms of areas where you can make changes?
A normal day can be really varied. A lot of time is spent on engaging with our teams of lawyers on problems and change, and designing potential solutions with them. As a team we use a ‘design thinking’ approach and invest time in ‘lawyer whispering’ workshops to ensure that any change process is collaborative.
Change is rarely easy in the legal sector and I have seen so many good ideas and innovations, especially when it comes to technology, not work because they are imposed or just thrown in without enough thought. So, there is a huge emphasis on getting engagement right.
I also prioritise as much time as possible for external discussions with clients, market experts, tech companies, start-ups and potential collaborators.
I get to attend a range of conferences and events so that I can take an informed view on the wide variety of current developments in the legal market. I also try to find time to write a regular blog on change and innovation in the legal sector.
The priority areas for change are usually driven by client opportunities and demands and tend to focus on the potential applications for disruptive technology, prototyping new services and putting together new collaborations.
There seems to be a very wide spectrum in terms of technology adoption among law firms, ranging from those embracing AI to those still coming to terms with document automation. Why is there such a difference across the profession? Is it a function of firm size or are other factors involved?
I think two big factors drive adoption of technology in law firms: engagement and investment. The key to being effective is getting the balance right. Some of the bigger firms have deep pockets, but with that financial success there seems to be less of an incentive to change.
Other firms may have the desire for change, but when it comes to adopting a major technology like AI or automation then it can be difficult to make the case for the upfront investment in a sector where financial horizons tend to just be 12 months.
To get the best results you need a clear strategy for both. When we developed DWF Draft, our document automation service, we saw incredible adoption rates in the first 12 months and I don’t think that [adoption level] was a coincidence. We had a clear engagement approach and a multi-year funding model in place before we even thought about writing the first line of code.
In terms of automation, there are many areas where law firms could improve, from better document automation to linking entire process chains with automating software. How far can automation inside a law firm go, even if each step forward is only incremental?
It depends to an extent on the nature and complexity of the work. However if we say a conservative estimate is that 30-35% of legal work is a repeat process based on precedent, then I think the potential for increased automation is huge.
I think lawyers will be more productive if we give them [more] time and a greater purpose. So finding ways to remove the boring, but often necessary, elements of repeat processes, document review and document production through the use of automation provides a real incentive.
The approach and pace of adoption will no doubt vary, but we find it tends to be useful to understand the processes and how they work in an analogue way first before moving on to opportunities for automation.
If we say a conservative estimate is that 30-35% of legal work is a repeat process based on precedent, then I think the potential for increased automation is huge.
Is the movement toward greater automation driven by the partners or the clients? I.e. is this about gaining internal efficiencies to improve profit margins, or are the clients demanding their external lawyers provide ‘better, faster, cheaper’ legal services?
The simple answer is both. Historically law has tended to be a very artisan profession that could command high prices, but there is now little doubt that clients [want] more for less so there is definite price pressure which drives the need for increased efficiency.
Combine that with the fact that the operating models of most legal businesses will require increasing levels of investment to stay competitive then the movement toward greater automation is coming from all sides.
You mentioned before that DWF had looked at using AI, but that the firm has not yet decided to make use of it. Could you say a bit more about that in terms of potential uses for the firm and whether the current position will change?
AI is very much part of our vision for a family of technology applications that free-up our lawyers and improve our proposition for clients. I think there has been a lot of publicity recently around AI and I’m not yet convinced how much of it is driven by R&D and how much is just marketing.
We have several use cases where we think AI can be deployed, but we think it will work best as part of an overall design where we can show that the economics add up properly. It can be tempting to put out a press release as soon as you have tried a new system just to say that you are ‘doing AI’, but I would always swap short term headlines for long term success when it comes to adopting legal tech.
You also noted the importance of data analytics. This seems to be a huge potential area for law firms to explore further, given the amount of data they produce every day. Would it be fair to say we have only just started to tap the benefits of data analytics as a profession?
I have heard data described as the new oil for legal services and given we have a sizeable insurance litigation business we already see the potential value that data-driven legal services can bring to clients.
We have a predictive analytics team within our DWF Consultancy that regularly works with clients to analyse litigation data and I think a lot of legal services in the future will shift the focus to prevention rather than cure. So, we will see continued growth in this area.
Data is also the fundamental element that underpins the success of many other legal tech applications and processes, so there is a double benefit to having the right data strategy.
Like most innovations though, the legal sector is behind many other industries so there is a lot we can still learn and a long way to go before we see the full potential.
Lastly, the future. AI is now steadily being adopted by a growing number of law firms, advanced automation is increasing as well. Do you see the law firm model changing as a result, or will it stay largely the same, but be more efficient?
I don’t think anyone can say for certain what the impact will be and the traditional law firm model has proved it can be quite change-resistant.
I do think though that many of the most interesting legal tech developments we are seeing aren’t simple out the box solutions. They require time and effort to design and develop and also an investment approach beyond 12 months to deliver sustainable benefits so that will require a change in model for many firms.
Couple that with the potential for increasingly digital service delivery, a more flexible work force and disruptive competition, then my bet would be that we will see a number of law firms needing to change the centuries old model if they are to stay relevant to clients.