‘Lack of Role Models’ A Key Cause for Slow Tech Adoption

A new report on the barriers to legal tech adoption has found that a lack of senior role models in law firms was a key cause, along with several other systemic factors.

The report, conducted by deal platform Legatics, is the result of interviews and workshops with lawyers at Herbert Smith Freehills, DLA Piper, Pinsent Masons, Reed Smith, Osborne Clarke and Eversheds Sutherland. A survey was also circulated and answered anonymously by 133 lawyers across 10 leading law firms. The project was funded by Innovate UK.

The survey found that: ‘The majority of participants believed … senior management thought innovation was important. However, … often the perception was that this message was not implemented and there were few senior role models for using legal tech.’

I.e. senior managers at law firms talk the talk, but are not always walking the walk. Of course, from what Artificial Lawyer can see there are many reasons for this, such as they are understandably focused on high value matters or team management issues; that associates tend to be the ones most likely to be ‘hands-on’ with using tech tools; and that simply the need to stop and plan for the use of tech in work processes is not incentivised.

Also, the report notes: ‘Trainees and associates did comment on ‘certain progressive partners’ who do encourage the use of legal tech, but these were viewed as the minority – only 40% of associates and trainees agreed with the statement ‘senior stakeholders within the group act as role models for the use of legal technology‘.’

And yet, they also noted that: ‘There were frequent examples of the powerful impact partners can have. It can be hugely beneficial: one associate mentioned the dramatically positive impact on adoption of senior partners deciding to go ‘paper light’ and encourage the use of iPads. But it can also be negative: a common refrain, articulated by one associate was of ‘multiple instances where I have been aware of good technology, but the partners have been unwilling to try it out‘.’

Now, all organisations take their cues from the top, even if they are not consciously aware of it. Law firms are also supremely pyramidal entities, in that they are organised by time served and also ‘survival’ – at least among the fee earners. I.e. these days probably no more than 10% of each associate cohort make it to equity partner and then have any say in how a firm is run or what’s important to the business as a whole.

Many of those that do get through the law firm’s ‘trial by fire’ have done so not by trying to change how things work, but by being very good lawyers, working incredibly hard, and having an ability to win the clients’ trust. All of that is highly commendable – but it doesn’t necessarily connect to legal tech adoption.

Of course, these days one could argue that one way to win over the clients is to be on top of legal tech and process management, and therefore tech skills and tech use should be a factor in becoming a partner.

In turn those partners will then set a positive example to the junior associates, and it all becomes a positive feedback loop.

Any road, moving on. The three other key factors of the four top ones that Legatics picked out were:

  • A general lack of knowledge about legal tech across the firm, e.g. many lawyers didn’t even know what was in their tech stack or how they could access it.
  • Limited prioritisation, i.e. there are just so many other pressing issues when it comes to client service that tech just gets pushed down the agenda.
  • Inadequate training – although some firms are now making a serious effort to help junior lawyers learn about tech, e.g. having training seats with the tech team, it’s still having a relatively small impact.

CEO of Legatics, Anthony Seale, told Artificial Lawyer: ‘There are both behavioural and organisational barriers. And it can be things such as lawyers not even knowing their firm has a certain tech product.’

Seale also balanced this out by stating that quite often the lawyers were not totally impressed by the legal tech products once they got their hands on them – and that contributed to the challenges.

He also added that one way to improve things was to publicise internally use cases where the firm had seen a great success, i.e. take an example of where a certain tool has been useful, and helped the firm and the clients, and then do some internal marketing so that everyone in that practice area across the firm knows about that tool. This internal marketing may be especially important the larger and more international the firm is.

Seale also suggested incentivising legal tech training, rather than just measuring junior lawyer success in terms of hours billed. And while some firms do offer ‘innovation hours’, to let lawyers engage with innovation instead of billing, firms were not necessarily positively rewarding associates for engaging with tech.

In a related piece of work, Legatics also explored how to help law firms adopt AI tools more rapidly. Their conclusion was to apply ‘microservices’ that fitted into the workflows of law firms, but did not disrupt them. I.e. rather than going for a major roll-out of an NLP platform for bulk doc review, which involves a lot of changes to how a firm works, and needs people trained on how to use that system, it would be better to implement small improvements into workflows, such as Legatics provides for deal management, which would be more ‘digestible’ and less disruptive.

This site agrees that making small improvements to existing workflows and workflow tools makes a lot of sense, but the reality is if you want to use NLP tools for major review tasks, then ….well, that is what you have to do because there aren’t any alternatives, and that will mean some changes to how people work. I.e. you either do all manual, or you don’t and you use software to analyse the docs, plus some manual input to make sure you get a good result. It’s just not one of those jobs that can be easily done without either a lot of tech or a lot of human effort, (or both…). Trying to turn this into a far smaller project is just not really feasible.

There isn’t really any getting around that. Although the UK Government, and Innovate UK, which backed this project and the survey, want to see speedier adoption of AI tools across the professional services sector to boost productivity, the reality is that until the tech improves a great deal then NLP systems will require ‘humans in the loop’ for quality control and project management.

That tends to make smaller law firms – which often handle less voluminous deals and hence have less need of such tools – unlikely to use them for the actual doc analysis part of the project. I.e. the benefits are just not enough for smaller firms to stomach the potential changes to how they work. Meanwhile, larger firms, that have much to lose by not providing such services to massive global clients, have the size and resources to implement process groups to operate such bulk analysis tools – and also see the benefits from them.

P.S. AL would add that as in many things, one of the biggest drivers for change is going to be on the buy-side of the legal market equation, not necessarily on the sell-side. I.e. market forces can drive tech adoption probably more strongly than any other factor, as they are the root cause of real change in production methods. See the story from earlier today about CLOC and SALI.

  • You can find the barriers to tech adoption report here. And the one about AI, here.

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