The digital revolution is affecting almost every industry, but the legal sector has been slow to change. Modernisation of other services affects client expectations of all industries, including the legal sector.
Despite often dealing with complex cases and sensitive information, the industry still needs to evolve. In an age when you can buy your house online, it would be illogical not to be able to deal with a solicitor this way too. More legal firms are now adopting digital approaches, but there are still many more opportunities for the industry.
How have online estate agencies led to the digitisation of legal sector?
The estate agency industry is one whose digital development surprised many people. Buying a home is a ‘real-world’ experience, yet the industry was still disrupted by online agents. With the digitalisation of this service, it was natural for the accompanying paperwork to be modernised.
There are many conveyancing services that deal with all the legal aspects of moving house digitally. MyHomeMove offers an online case management system called eWay. This allows you to monitor changes, make payments and update documents 24/7, online or via an app. You can still call someone, but there is no need to wait for office hours or make a face-to-face appointment as you can make edits whenever it suits you.
Are there wider applications?
It is, of course, not just conveyancing that can be digitised. Services industry-wide could be revolutionised. Axiom are a worldwide company that describe themselves as “tech-enabled” and have changed the way billing in the industry is understood. Rather than bill hour-by-hour, they work by negotiated flat fees.
The reason why they can offer this is that they keep their costs low by being based in cheap locations. Digital businesses do not rely on footfall and can, therefore, reduce their overheads. Axiom offer a range of legal services, focussing on contracts, compliance, corporate transactions and insourcing but would not describe themselves as a law firm.
Why have more legal services not yet digitised?
Despite these success stories, the legal industry is still resisting the digitising of sensitive information. But is it clients that fear their documents existing in the cloud, or is the reluctance coming from inside the legal sector?
After all, the financial industry has had success with online banking, so it seems unusual that those same customers are not willing to virtually sign a document. While it is understandable that any sector that deals with sensitive information may be reluctant to digitise, there are ways to secure data online. Once more firms become comfortable with digital documents, those who insist on a paper-only existence risk being left behind.
However, one early adopter of digitisation did struggle. Clearspire operated for five years as a virtual law firm, allowing lawyers and clients alike to work remotely on documents via a central technology platform. They described themselves as “an alternative to Big Law”, but as Big Law saw the opportunity, Clearspire ceased operating as a stand-alone law firm in 2014 and changed its business model to propose offering a Legal Services Delivery Platform for all law firms.
Several years on and Clearspire’s name has faded, but their technology has been sold. Clearspire’s demise could have been the death of so-called “New law”, but with developments in the years since its closure, the industry is still looking forward to digitising.
Modernisation might be easier for the industry if it expands on existing services rather than replacing demand for ‘traditional’ law services. A wholly ‘virtual’ law firm didn’t survive, but there are many opportunities for firms to use the technology. Clearspire was possibly too much, too soon, but the digital revolution is far from over – this is just the beginning.
What is the future?
Although law practice startups infrequently occur (possibly due to the qualifications needed), legal technology startups are set to disrupt the market.
Nextlaw Labs, for example, hopes to develop and deploy new technologies to drag the legal sector forward. With global law firm Dentons as their lead support and investor, Nextlaw has got the means to be successful.
The legal sector may have lasted with its existing methods unchanged for years but it’s time for the industry’s senior management to accept that change is on its way, before it is forced on them from the outside.