8 tangible benefits that technology is bringing to law firms

Five lawyers and technologists at the famously tech-savvy firm Pinsent Mansonsconsider how innovation is helping them.

At the ‘Lawyers and the fourth industrial revolution’ event at Pinsent Masons’ Birmingham office, students were treated to an hour and a half of insights from the frontline of law and technology.

If there was a dominant theme, it was how much innovation had benefited the speakers, who were drawn from across the firm. We’ve distilled the session into eight key insights.

Being innovative generates interesting new work streams

Pinsent Masons’ director of knowledge and innovation delivery, David Halliwell, has been delighted to see the hard-work that he and his colleagues have put in over the years increasingly yield new instructions from clients. He explains:

“We have gained a reputation in the market for being quite creative and innovative in the way we solve problems. And now clients are coming to us and saying, ‘We have this problem, we have no idea if you have a solution, but can you apply some of your best brains to it — some of your lawyers, technologists and knowledge engineers — and see what you can come up with?”

The technology doesn’t mean that the firm needs fewer lawyers

Senior banking associate Jen Marshall has been one of the lawyers at the forefront of technology being applied to finance work.

Building on Halliwell’s message, she adds that her experience of AI to date has been “that we are generating fees that we have never provisioned for because we’re getting work and instructions that we could never have imagined getting because of the use of these systems, and what we can deliver for clients through the use of these systems.” Marshall goes on:

“And actually, our experience has not been this is reducing lawyer numbers. It’s not about doing away with trainees, it’s not about ‘let’s have a really small business and just everyone relies on technology’. That’s not what it’s about. It’s a case of developing new skills and new areas of work for our lawyers.”

Tech offers UK-headquartered law firms a way to mitigate the risk of Brexit

Over the next couple of years, Halliwell expects English law is going to be “flexible” as “bits of European legislation get discarded and other things get put in their place”. In this environment, there is a short term risk that New York law may get a boost in some international commercial discussions.

This will be mitigated, forecasts Halliwell, by the fact that the English legal market is “probably the most advanced in the world in terms of innovation and use of technology to improve processes”.

He explains further:

“So I think, yes we may be losing a little bit [in terms] of risk around the certainty of English law, but the way the English legal profession is innovating I think makes us a natural place for clients to come to solve their toughest problems.”

An openness to new skills is making law firms more interesting places

As Pinsent Masons has embraced innovation, it has created new roles, including 25 legal knowledge and software engineering positions. Paven Sharma, a Keele University law graduate with a passion for computers, is one of them. Sharma’s hybrid skills make him a perfect link man between the firm’s solicitors and technologists.

He advises graduates entering the profession to concentrate on what they are good at. So if you have the tech skills already, as a STEM student converting to law or a law student with a longstanding interest in technology, then it makes sense to emphasise them. If not, bear in mind that Pinsent Masons has an ethos of employing “lawyers who are really good at being lawyers and coders who are really good at being coders.” Sharma adds: “And we all work really well as a team.”

Areas like smart contracts are turning lawyers into pioneers

Recently Halliwell has been exploring ideas around using smart contracts for projects such as construction. This would see lawyers and technologists utilise blockchain technology to automate the advancement of the various stages of a project. For example, someone on site could take a photo of a window that has been built and automatically payment would flow from the person who commissioned that window to the person who fitted it.

Currently, this is some way off, with just one blockchain-enabled smart contract transaction having been trialled. But it’s just the beginning, says Halliwell:

“In the future blockchain is likely to have a whole range of different applications. We will look back in 5-10 years time and say, ‘Why on earth didn’t we think of that as a potential application?”

Millennial lawyers have the chance to be at the forefront of the changes

It is the likes of Pinsent Masons junior associate Alexandra Simon, and trainee Ben Roach, who will ultimately see new developments like smart contracts evolve into established parts of corporate legal life.

Now, as the fourth industrial revolution sweeps the law, these rookies find themselves amid a wealth of opportunities. Simon herself is currently involved in rolling out document automation software for clients to use within their businesses. It relies on the completion of a questionnaire by the client, and then automates a standard contract for the client which includes the appropriate clauses in accordance with the answers provided.

“Drafting the questionnaire causes you to be more commercial in your thinking – you are not just drafting a clause [in a contract], you are thinking of all the possible variants to that clause based on the response to the question as it occurs to the person reading it,” she says, adding: “It’s an exciting time to bring together law, commercial expertise and technology.”

Roach, too, has relished getting to grips with new technology as it has been introduced across departments. “Trainees over the next couple of years will probably have more exposure to it,” he predicts.

Tech is allowing law firms to recruit more widely

Technology is also shaking up recruitment, with the contextual recruitment tool developed by diversity recruiter Rare that has been adopted by Pinsent Masons and other firms helping broaden the talent pool.

It works by matching up candidates with a vast database of schools, and then places their A-levels and other qualifications in the context of the background to their education.

Simon, who herself made it into the law from a humble background, is a big fan. Her message to those seeking to follow a similar path is that “law is an option and you can do it”. She continues:

“Just go for it. You will come up against people who seem to be from backgrounds which are conducive to a legal career. You’ll come across statistics which tell you that training contracts are like gold dust. You will come across these challenges that may or may not make you think ‘is too much of a challenge for me to take on’. But the answer to that question is no – if you want this as a legal career then go for it.”

Innovation is helping to smash the glass ceiling

This year Pinsent Masons reached its ‘Project Sky’ 25% target for women partners a year early and plans to keep improving that percentage over the years ahead. A statement of intent came in May, when women made up 68% of the lawyers promoted to partner at the firm.

Agile working has played a big part in this, freeing up solicitors with young children to work remotely to a much greater extent. Simon says that cutting-edge systems allow everyone at the firm to manage their time more effectively.

“The other day I was able to work on a due diligence project while sitting in my garden,” she reports.

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