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Mapping out next legal evolution

Thursday, July 21, 2016 @ 8:00 PM | By Chris Bentley and Hersh Perlis


This marks the first stage of an ongoing examination of how legal innovation can fit into a lawyer’s practice, now and in the future. There are many initiatives being worked on. They underscore the importance of the topic. Legal incubators, firm and professional association projects are among them. Clearly legal practice is evolving in terms of ownership, service delivery avenues and technology adoption. What the future holds is change and challenge. The only certainty is that it will be different from the present. We will be asking some thought leaders how, and why.

The past 30 years have seen almost every part of our lives transformed by change. Technology has encouraged this process at an ever-accelerating pace.

We are also a society built on the rule of law and legal rights. People, businesses and countries want to know, and assert, their rights. The law is at least as important now as it ever was. The legal profession has had to lead, enable, challenge and support the change that society has experienced over the years. Interesting, then, that the one area of life that has been slow to change is how we prepare, bundle and deliver legal services and advice.

Why should law change? Because consumers are demanding it. Consumers demand timely, simple and affordable. Too often the law delivers slow, complex and expensive. Consumers want solutions. The law delivers process.

Increasing numbers of people and businesses do not have timely or affordable access to the legal services they need. The legal market in Canada is large and growing, but so is the identified unmet legal need. Access to justice is no longer only about the poorest and marginalized. Today, many middle income Canadians and small- and mid-sized businesses cannot access the legal services they need. Cost is the main factor, but process complexity and the time it takes are also important. Access issues also affect large businesses. In a world where every inefficiency diminishes competitiveness, legal advice needs to be nimble, fast and cost-effective as the product or service the company needing it provides.

Access issues are serious social justice issues and must be addressed as a social right. The failure to provide the required access, the unmet legal need, is also a lost economic opportunity for the legal profession. The billions of dollars left on the table every year through an ineffective and inefficient legal system are an opportunity for the entrepreneurial.

Consumers will get what they want and need. Jurisdictional boundaries that have effectively shaped access to legal services and information are less meaningful in the age of the digital revolution. Technology empowers consumers. They can reach anywhere they want for the answers or services they need, and increasingly they are doing so. The profession must change. Innovation is the answer.

Innovation can involve technology, but it can also involve business processes or approaches. The simple application of standard business process improvement to our legal systems would make a profound improvement in access to justice. Put simply — cut out the paper, cut out the steps: get to the decision point faster.

For example, a family court system could triage cases at the beginning, much like a hospital does, to determine where they should go, what resources should be applied and whether there is an overarching urgency. Many cases don’t need the court system, and they could be directed to the best possible place for resolution before documents are filed and costs incurred. Others, domestic violence for example, should not wait for any reason. The route to resolution would then involve as few steps and as little paper as possible.

Who delivers legal services has also been changing. One could argue that the relatively recent explosion of in-house legal departments has, in large measure, been a reaction to the profession’s failure to innovate to meet business needs. It is counterintuitive for corporations to insource lawyers when they have been outsourcing everything else not directly tied to their “core” business. It does create opportunities for innovation itself, as businesses now look to apply the same thinking to their legal departments that they apply to the other parts of their business.

The creation of Deloitte Conduit Law LLP shows how fast things can change. It started when Deloitte purchased ATD Legal Services, a legal process outsourcing company that focused on tedious tasks law firms weren’t interested in doing. Its founder, Shelby Austin, was then brought in to Deloitte and given an innovation green light leading to the Deloitte and Conduit announcement. Conduit, along with Cognition LLP, (which has now split into two companies: Axiom Cognition and Caravel Law) were in the delivery of legal expertise to businesses on demand. Now they have both upsized, creating the potential benefits of economies of scale and expanded access to potential clients.

The move of the Big Four multinational accounting firms into legal services that was rebuffed more than a decade ago, now seems almost inexorable. What are the implications for traditional law firms? Potentially profound, with the Big Four having ready access to serve clients in different jurisdictions with multiple services.

Artificial intelligence and machine learning are the rage. Ross Intelligence, an AI IBM Watson progeny, recently signed on with major U.S. firms. Neota Logic, a company focused on automation, has partnered with a number of private and public organizations to help build powerful applications and provide innovative solutions for their businesses. The debate seems to be “will they replace lawyers?” The very smart people who debated or ignored Steve Jobs’ foray into a 3-in-1 device are now observers in the field. If lawyers ignore AI, they will be replaced. The real questions should be: what can it do, will consumers benefit, and, if so, how can I be the first to lead the change?

Big data, open data, analytics and blockchain were never part of law school, but they are about to become part of our vocabulary. Technology has been/is being developed for so many creative uses. Some is internal, some client facing, and some revolutionizes the service and its delivery

Although the innovation discussion can sometimes seem difficult to access, you don’t need Gatesian knowledge to start innovating. Simply look at the technology you use in other parts of your life to access products or services and ask how it could be used in law. Most of it is available, simple and relatively cheap.

Research and development are a key part of every successful business. You must invest time and resources in innovation to succeed. Before you do, find out what is happening in law, and elsewhere, that might have relevance to what you do. Think broadly.

Ironically, the legal profession and its systems are in a race to maintain importance and relevance at the very time when the public demand for legal advice and assistance is growing. Will it advance or retreat? Innovation to better meet consumer and societal demand is the way forward.

Chris Bentley is the executive director of the Legal Innovation Zone and the Law Practice Program, Ryerson University and Hersh Perlis is a director of the Legal Innovation Zone.

LexisNexis Canada has entered into partnership with Ryerson University’s Legal Innovation Zone with the intention of charting and evaluating important emerging trends in legal innovation in Canada and around the globe. The content of this page is not subject to approval by LexisNexis Canada or Ryerson University’s Legal Innovation Zone.