The event took place nearly 3 years since the Ministry of Justice announced it would be supporting the sector with the creation of LawtechUK, in collaboration with Tech Nation and LawtechUK panel. Additionally, £4m has recently been announced for the third phase of this programme.
Whitecap has been engaged with the LawtechUK team in recent months due to the strategic partnership between LawtechUK and LegalTech in Leeds, the initiative we co-ordinate which aims to bring together the legal and tech sectors in the region. I was delighted to be able to join this session in person and join a group of senior stakeholders from across the UK’s lawtech ecosystem.
Alexandra Lennox, Director of LawtechUK, kicked off the event and gave a number of examples of the way technology had moved to the top of the agenda in the legal industry over recent years, including smart contracts, late payments, and sharing of legal data.
Alexandra stated that the adoption of legal technology has accelerated faster than any other tech sector, and explained that there are two key questions as we look at the future of lawtech:
- How can lawtech help us build a more competitive edge?
- How can lawtech help close the access to justice gaps?
Mike Freer MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for the Ministry of Justice gave a pre-recorded address, highlighting the UK’s global strength. Mike also highlighted that the UK’s leadership could be eroded if we do not embrace technology effectively.
“We want to explore the potential of lawtech to help address unmet legal need for consumers and businesses.”
Rafie Faruq, Co-Founder & CEO of Genie AI, provided what was probably the soundbite of the evening:
“If you make legal services more efficient, you’re actually making all sectors more efficient.”
Lawtech is already estimated to be worth £22bn to the UK economy annually, but access to justice remains a key issue. 36% of people don’t feel they could achieve a fair and reasonable outcome to a legal problem, and various other research has shown that the SME market is particularly underserved.
More effective use of legal technology to help with access to justice can also reduce the number of court cases, and therefore reduce the pressure on the courts.
Lawtech capabilities – Reimagining access to law
The first of two panels was chaired by Christina Blacklaws, Managing Director, Blacklaws Consulting & Chair of LawtechUK Panel. The panel was made up of: Professor Thomas Melham, Professor of Computer Science, University of Oxford; Dr Natalie Byrom, Director of Research and Learning, The Legal Education Foundation: Fiona Rutherford, Chief Executive, JUSTICE.
Christina explained that access to justice isn’t about access to lawyers or court services. It’s a fundamental human right for everyone in society. She also outlined that Susskind categorises access to legal services into four areas:
- Access to dispute resolution
- Better methods for dispute containment
- Dispute avoidance
- Legal health promotion
The panel agreed that the system is really complicated, but also highlighted that it can’t be changed without a public mandate, and it is critical to understand what the critical success factors are for the many types of consumers and businesses who could benefit from the reform of the system. We should not assume we know what will work for these people – we need to ask them.
The discussion also covered the need to stay focused on the purpose of the justice system, which is to uphold the law. We need to ask how we can use technology to harness the rights of the law, not just to help them settle legal issues quickly and online, which might close an issue but may not give the consumer or business the justice they are entitled to. That said, it was also highlighted that reaching a settlement would be a better result than many consumers and businesses achieve (often receiving nothing).
The UK legal system was “designed by professionals for professionals”, so it’s very complicated for non-lawyers to understand. Technology can help simplify this. Technology can also make the law easier for consumers and businesses to understand.
Law firms were a key focus of the debate. Much of the technology that is currently available to law firms is not used. Starting to use what is already available to them would be an obvious place for law firms to start. Additionally, it was stated that the data available within the legal sector is decades behind what other sectors are using today.
The access to justice market is less populated by lawyers. It is not a lucrative market to serve, and there is also an underlying lack of awareness of consumers and businesses that they need legal services to help them in a particular situation.
Effective solutions to legal problems require a multi-disciplinary approach to solve them. It’s not just about tech. Christina described what is required as ‘strategic change management’, while Fiona highlighted the need not only to deliver the tech solutions that are required, but also to prove them to be scalable, as this is what will attract entrepreneurs and investors.
“Data, data, data. We need to invest in the basic data infrastructure that is needed to support the justice system, and then we can look at building on top of this. We need data that helps us understand who is in the system, why they are in the system, and also to track back to even earlier in the process.”
Dr Natalie Byrom, The Legal Education Foundation
The panel also discussed the challenge of educating lawyers and technologists, noting that changing the curriculum on courses is very difficult.
“I’m not a believer in lawyers learning to code, I’m a believer in lawyers learning to talk to coders. I would like to see open document standards, open technical standards. This would really help us build the ecosystem.”
Professor Thomas Melham, University of Oxford
International competitiveness – Lawtech with no borders
The second panel at the event was chaired by Professor Richard Susskind OBE, President of the Society for Computers & Law, and LawtechUK panel member, and possibly the best known figure in the sector. He was joined by: Fraser Matcham, Founder & Chief Product Officer, Legal Utopia; Peter Hunn, UKJY, Smart Agreements, DocuSign; Sophia Adams Bhatti, Global Head of Purpose & impact, Simmons & Simmons.
The focus of the panel discussion was on how the UK can maintain and build on the current state of play where English law is a very valuable UK export.
“It’s really simple, it’s about efficiency. Clients just want one thing – solve my problem, and do it as efficiently as possible.”
Sophia Adams Bhatti, Simmons & Simmons
Many tech developments have helped improve the user experience, such as smart contracts, but such development fundamentally relies on the appropriate infrastructure being in place. It was highlighted that we have a strong ecosystem in the UK, but that there is a need to make some fundamental infrastructure changes in respect of things like data.
The better we make the infrastructure, the better the environment is for the creation of new business models and services.
“Nobody is suggesting that the need for legal services is decreasing. If anything, it is increasing as society and the economy becomes more complicated.”
Professor Richard Susskind OBE
Amazon was used as an example of an organisation that has shown how to not only create a competitive advantage, but to retain it, develop it and strengthen it over time. The notion was that the UK legal sector needs to learn from this, with the panel discussing how the UK was probably ahead of the game with vision and ideas, but not as good at execution and therefore running the risk that others will catch up, not least with the strong challenging headwinds currently faced by the UK economy.
“I think we can say that technology is not currently having the impact we want it to in the legal sector, but initiatives such as LawtechUK are having a positive effect. To retain the UK’s competitive advantage, I would focus on three things: legal certainty and law reform, investing more in education, and collaboration nationally and internationally.”
Peter Hunn, DocuSign
The panel agreed that we can’t rely on the view of the incumbents when trying to solve industry problems, and that we need entrepreneurs, and the views from other sectors, to help challenge the way the sector works and make a positive impact. This is very much at the heart of the work of LawtechUK over the last three years, which has
Closing the event, Alexandra Lennox reflected that the event is a call to action to turn great thinking into action. This certainly sounds like a call to arms, and one that LawtechUK is well placed to help deliver.