A new report by LexisNexis on the world of Small Law shows that Google is the number one resource for legal research, however 46% said ‘it is risky to use the open web’ for that very same legal research, and only 5% ‘trust the accuracy’ of free legal information that is found there.
The survey sample were 305 lawyers from small and SME-scale law firms in the UK. This type of smaller legal business makes up the vast majority of firms, not just in the UK, but across the planet. Yet, as the survey shows, they are grappling with plenty of problems – and tech is central to them.
As the table above shows, Google is the top source of legal information in the UK for lawyers at smaller firms; then The Law Society – even though it is primarily a representative body; then the UK Government’s own website that provides ‘as is’ regulation, but without much else; and then finally the Big Two legal research giants.
However, respondents also said that just under half (46%) of them saw using the ‘open web’, i.e. Google search, to find answers to legal questions as risky. And, despite this reliance on Google, only 5% trust the accuracy of free legal information found on the internet.
This is a bit like the joke about the two pensioners who are taken to a lunchtime show and moan about the food all the way through. Then at the end, one turns to the other with a satisfied smile and says: ‘But such big portions!’
As one surveyed lawyer explained: ‘I think that’s how you solve any question in life at the moment: you stick it in Google. It doesn’t surprise me, but it does scare me. If you’re getting your information from Google, the [professional indemnity] insurers aren’t going to be too thrilled with you.’
And being able to keep paying their professional indemnity insurance was – as it always has been – one of the most important concerns for Small Law. I.e. a failure to grapple with tech resources that help with legal research is actually exacerbating one of Small Law’s biggest challenges.
But what about the broader picture around tech and innovation? Reading between the lines of the survey it would appear that most smaller firms are still very much ‘doing what is necessary’, but not really focusing on actively changing what they are doing, or how they do it.
The survey found that just over half of the survey sample had tried – or at least planned – to talk to the key lawyers at the firm about modernising the business. But, that is hardly a signal of massive change, as it includes ‘plan to’ – plus there is no guarantee the very small number of partners who own Small Law firms – and are often thinking more about their retirement options – will listen or do anything.
Moreover, it means that just under half are perhaps not trying to drive this conversation forward.
Around 40% said that they had already implemented investments in process and technology – but the survey doesn’t really go into what this was for, and could represent renewing a licence for an old practice management system or just expanding their Microsoft suite. Meanwhile, 28% added that they ‘planned to’ make more investment in this area.
If 40% were investing in tech that really changed things for them it seems unlikely that a corresponding 53% of the sample would be talking to their firm’s leaders (or hoping to) about business change. I.e. one small firm’s tech investment is another (probably larger) firm’s basic tech hygiene, and doesn’t really move the dial much.
The problem for Small Law, as ever, is several things:
- The focus is very much on just keeping going, keeping talent, and then the exit of the Baby Boomer lawyers who are very often the founding partners and own the business.
- Getting beyond the cycle of just keeping busy, and staying on top of regulations, compliance needs, and insurance, is really hard to do when you cannot even afford to hire a new junior lawyer to the team and have no spare staff to handle things like testing out new technology.
- There remains a relatively low number of legal tech companies that are designed specifically for Small Law. One reason for this is the high cost of sales to smaller law firms twinned with lower revenues per customer – making it hard for startups in this market to grow fast enough to satisfy investors. I.e. to make this segment work, you have to scale fast as a startup. Meanwhile larger legal tech companies with extensive Big Law customers are likely generating very good revenues and find it hard to offer the very low prices required to be used by much smaller firms.
Conclusion, Small Law does seem to be moving in the right direction, and there are more legal tech companies focused here, from Clio – which has been a big success in the US, to newer companies in the UK, such as Julia Salasky’s Legl.
But, the old systemic challenges remain largely in place, and it will likely take a long time before these are overcome – if they ever can be.
One solution this site has always supported is consolidation, with perhaps Government support to help smaller firms merge together to create larger, better resourced businesses that can then invest more in change.
But, the Government has probably other more pressing matters to consider. Meanwhile, it’s not a role The Law Society could really take on as a representative body, and the Solicitors Regulation Authority is there to regulate, not force market change.
If you have found the solution to this challenge, please let everyone know.
The full report can be found here.