UK Government Increases its Support for Legal Tech

While not every country may hope to see its government getting involved in changing the way the legal world works, in the UK, the British Government has taken another step to directly support legal tech in the hope of driving positive change amongst lawyers and it looks to be a very welcome move.

In its latest initiative, Lord Chancellor, David Gauke, has announced a Government-backed industry-led delivery panel to ‘boost new legal technologies’.

Earlier this year, the Prime Minister announced a £20 million fund to encourage work between businesses and researchers and help the service industry, including the legal sector, to take advantage of new technologies. The Home Office has also announced the launch of start-up visas for entrepreneurs looking to come to the UK, which should help legal tech companies here to grow.

In a speech at the Lord Mayor’s Dinner for HM Judges at Mansion House on Wednesday evening, the Lord Chancellor unveiled plans for a panel of industry professionals to support and accelerate the development and adoption of innovative new legal technologies.

It will be Chaired by the Law Society of England & Wales new President, Christina Blacklaws (see speech on legal tech from last night below on the occasion of the formal start of her presidency). The group will provide direction to the legal sector and help foster an environment in which new technology can thrive.

The Government said it recognises the importance of embracing cutting-edge initiatives to ‘ensure the UK’s £24 billion legal services sector continues to grow and retain its world-leading reputation’.

They added: ‘The legal sector is already adapting to harness the power of these emerging technologies – with the Serious Fraud Office introducing a document review system, backed up by artificial intelligence, that can review 2,000 documents a day and law firms embracing automated digital contracts that allow for on-going monitoring of contract terms.’

Lord Chancellor David Gauke added: ‘I am determined to ensure our world-leading legal services sector continues to thrive and that the UK remains the primary choice for international business. The Lawtech industry is experiencing rapid growth and cutting-edge initiatives are already underway across the country.’

It is of paramount importance that, working together, we foster an environment in which these new technologies are embraced and take advantage of every opportunity created. The UK is the ideal place for LawTech to thrive – with its progressive regulation, world-leading professionals and financial services sector and huge tech talent pool,’ he added.

More information on the Government’s £20 million industrial strategy can be found here.

‘The UK is the ideal place for LawTech to thrive.’

What Does This All Mean?

So, there you go and check out the speech below from the Law Society’s new President for a bit more detail on how English lawyers’ representative body sees things.

The Law Soc is also running a new commission on algorithms and ethics (see story here.) And, the Solicitors Regulatory Authority – the rule-making body for solicitors – is also getting involved, running roadshows around the nation on the issue of legal tech (and Artificial Lawyer spoke at one of its panels in Cambridge last month).

All in all, the UK, and especially the English and Welsh bit of it, is seeing unprecedented institutional interest in legal tech and law firm innovation, including legal AI tech. The goal is a noble one: to help the legal sector by ensuring lawyers here have the right level of knowledge to exploit this new wave of legal technology, which in turn will help wider society and the economy.

There is also the aim of making sure that the UK, and especially London, doesn’t lose its place as a global legal centre, especially after Brexit. After all, after New York, London remains one of the most important places for legal business on the planet. So….if supporting legal tech and innovation helps to protect its position, and/or gives London’s lawyers some competitive advantages, then the Government is all for it, especially when the UK seems to be isolating itself from the world via Brexit at the moment.

Also, it’s worth pointing out the the UK Government has form for intervening in the legal sector, for example the famous Legal Services Act 2007 which enabled external ownership of law firms by non-lawyers, for lawyers and accountants to become partners, and for law firms to float on the stock market.

While the Act didn’t totally change the sector, it certainly shook it up a little and made lawyers across the land think more radically about how they structured their business. The Act also made a big push in the direction of supporting consumer rights in the legal sector, and the needs of the consumer were a key driver for the intervention.

Moreover, the Act didn’t harm the legal industry either, even if it emboldened the Big Four to expand their legal arms. In fact, many commercial lawyers here have never banked so much cash…..arguably it was a healthy injection of new ideas and energy.

In short, unlike in some countries where lawyers don’t like to see the government meddling, in England there has been a relatively open-minded approach. And arguably this has been ‘a good thing’.

One of the problems with the law is that it’s a bit like a religious cult which demands ‘noli me tangere‘, with the result that it becomes protectionist, inward looking and self-serving. Government intervention has the ability to make the legal world think of the bigger picture, such as the national economy and the needs of society as a whole.

And, some may even wonder why the Law Society is getting involved. But, again, the role of a representative body is not just to be a talking shop, but to help drive change, and this current President sees the positive impact legal tech will have, and also AI.

Finally, you might think Artificial Lawyer would be aghast at the idea of a commission that looks at legal AI and ethics….but, the reality is all technologies evolve and need to pass through the regulatory valley to get to the sunny mass adoption uplands later. In the long run it’s a good thing that the Law Society is exploring ethics, as it eventually will help the legal AI sector to become more firmly established.

So, overall, it’s good to see these interventions. Whether they all work and actually drive change remains to be seen, but we have to applaud the efforts.

Speech of Christina Blacklaws, New President of the Law Society – re. Future of law and legal technology

Christina Blacklaws, New President of the Law Society, has a big focus on supporting legal tech and innovation.

‘Of course, we can only move in one direction through time so supporting solicitors to prepare for the future will also be a central part of my work.

We should not underestimate the significance of the role that technology will play (some would argue is already playing) in the delivery of modern legal services and it is essential that we stay ahead of the game.

To address these fundamental questions, I will be leading a number of initiatives:

Harnessing our great convening power, we have now launched our LawTech Policy Commission, which offers an opportunity for academics, policy makers, lawyers and technologists to come together to address the pressing legal and ethical challenges of technology.

The Commission is a year-long exploration of the impact of technology and big data on human rights and the justice system, focusing on the use of algorithms.

The first evidence session will take place on 25 July. I have the privilege of chairing the Commission, along with Sofia Olhede from UCL and Sylvie Delacroix from Birmingham University.

We will be taking oral and written evidence from a range of experts. Our sessions will be open to the public and we will publish all evidence provided – we aim to lead the charge in having a public debate about these issues. Please do get involved!

Our report will be published next year.

We will also continue to work closely with the government and parliamentto ensure we use the power of legal technology to support economic growth and drive opportunity.

The Lord Chancellor announced last night at Mansion House that the Ministry of Justice is creating a new panel to boost the LawTech industry. I was delighted to be asked to chair this panel. The ultimate aim of it is to enable the UK to become a world leader in LawTech.

We will also look to support the profession through engagement via guidance and access to new technology, to give everyone the opportunity to make properly informed decisions about technology and their businesses and careers. This will include a whole range of multimedia materials and tech roadshows around the country.

Our new partnership with Barclays will be crucial to further this work. By creating legal tech incubators, we aim to lead the way and help LawTech companies to start up and to scale up. The labs will provide physical spaces, open routes to investment and expertise, and offer a forum to connect the start-up community, law firms, entrepreneurs, data scientists, engineers and academics.

I strongly believe that although there are many challenges ahead, there are opportunities for members in equal measure. I am sure that with a concerted and collaborative effort, disruptive innovation can be harnessed by the whole of legal sector from the smallest of firms to our largest global companies.

To conclude, may I reiterate that it is a huge privilege to serve the solicitors’ profession as its 174th president.’

(This is a segment of the speech from 5 July, where vice-president Christina Blacklaws became the 174th President of the Law Society of England and Wales and the fifth woman to hold this office. The full speech is here.)