Report from LawTech Futures 2012

Virtual Intelligence VQ has attended and participated as speaker at LawTech Futures 2012 in London. This first time event, produced by Charles Christian, CEO and Editor-In-Chief of Legal Technology Insider and the world’s most widely-read legal IT commentator, and Netlaw Media, the leading legal events and media organization, was an immediate success.

The event certainly managed to live up to the ambition to create the largest one-day legal IT event in the UK ever, being completely sold out with over 500 delegates, 45 presenters, 26 seminars and over 30 exhibitors. Focus for the event was the future of legal technology, with a purpose for the day to get the delegates to open their eyes to the momentum for change on the legal market and to embrace the challenges. During the day we received plenty new insights, loads of inspiration, great discussions and maybe some small frights for the future developments for the legal market, provided by inter alia the futurists Dr. Patrick Dixon and Gerd Leonhard, Charles Christian himself and many more of the prominent speakers.

In the opening remarks, Charles Christian talked about the “brave new world of legal technology” and how legal consumers now are pushing the developments and demands on legal service providers in a way we never thought would happen ten years ago. Generally speaking, predictions on future developments are never very accurate – we know that change is coming, but we never get it quite right when it comes to the details. To put todays situation in perspective, Charles Christian, pointed out that the large worldwide magic circle law firms of today did not even exist 25 years ago, until a regulatory change made it possible to create partnerships with more than 20 partners, and might therefore in retrospective be a temporary period, before the market goes back to a stronger niche firm focus again. We are now at a major momentum of change, but like the dot com era for IT-companies, many of the changes that will happen will be unexpected, extremely fast and take us by surprise. There will most certainly be a major change in technology and providers, like the change 15 years ago from Word Perfect to Microsoft Word, that took the whole market by surprise in the speed in which the swift was made. We do know that we are at the point now where the cloud has emerged as an alternative to traditional in-house solutions, where we have more high technology at home than at the office and there is a strong consumerisation of law firm IT where social media, mobile working with tablets and other mobile devices is gaining ground rapidly, where the staff at law firms will not accept mobile restrictions to Blackberry, but will demand to decide mobile device on their own and more local and adapted solutions as opposed to one-size-fit-all global solutions.

One of the major issues law firms will have to face are how to go from providing legal advice to being legal service providers, with well defined, timely, price worthy legal products. To solve this, law firms will have to start thinking in business like terms and product development and will have to go from the inward-looking approach to technology with focus on internal administrative systems rather than on client-facing online services. Today, law firms seem to completely miss the point that technology is an enabler for business development. Law firms will also need to focus on differentiation and branding – how shall you as a law firm stand out from other law firms? In a recent survey in the UK of top brands, the first law firm brand came in only at place 250 of all 500, making it clear that law firms are just not on people’s minds. The answer lies in strategic service delivery – to come up with the equivalent to the bank ATM machine or the martini commercial – by using technology to deliver the right service to anyone anywhere.

Futurist Dr. Patrick Dixon focused on the thought provoking question “If you were to set up a legal entity today – how would you structure it, what kind of law would you deliver and what techniques would you use?” and provided ten key trends that will impact the future of law firms. The lesson learned was that speed is of the outmost importance and will affect all parts of the legal services. In the digital world 10 seconds is an eternity and after 20 seconds you have lost 80% of your customers if they have not managed to find what they were looking for. A discouraging fact in this respect is that law firms generally have changed more slowly than the rest of the world and their clients. The days when clients will come to see the lawyers at their discretion are over. Now communication is done in a mobile world, with telephone, Skype, email and cloud solutions. However, Patrick Dixon, had some good news for the delegates as well – there is a rapid growth in complexity of legislation and regulation, which to some extent counterbalances the digital development by requiring more legal assistance in new areas of law and in more complex legal issues.

In two interesting discussion seminars we then received insights from Jan DurantStuart WhittleJulie Berry and Neil Cameron on how to embrace legal technology to develop new business, which was followed by a discussion seminar with the topic whether corporate clients are getting the service they need from law firms or not, with points from Kevin Green, Nils Breidenstein, John Young, Abby Ewen and Peter Owen. The content of the discussion was summarized as “lawyers don’t always ask the right questions of IT people. And vice versa. Lots of internal awareness still to work at”, which was then widely quoted on Twitter.

Another inspiring, thought provoking and entertaining key note speech was then made by futurist Gerd Leonhard who talked about the future of law, technology and business in a digital world. Gerd Leonhard pointed out the changes we are experiencing today which will make the future go from empire to networks – from broadcasting and monopolies to decentralization and communication in unstructured networking channels. We are about to fundamentally change the way we live, work and communicate – from one-to-one to many-to-many. Just like Patrick Dixon, Gerd Leonhard talked a lot about the importance of speed. The world is becoming adjusted to the “nowness” where everything happens at once. You do not have the time to wait and see what will happen, it is “either up the cliff or down the cliff, without much of a warning”. We are getting a new global view on control, ownership and authority. In a digital world we are all in control and do not accept authority merely out of position. Therefore law firms need to find a way to add new value at all time. It is not about selling legal services but about selling legal services as well as everything around legal services.

The era of meritocracy and new forms of currency is upon us. You have to be really good to be trusted, you cannot rely on a title status anymore. There will also be new forms of currency in the connection you manage to create and what you can add to the information. If you are not good enough or if the clients do not like you they will not do business with you. In light of the freemium business model there is a value paradigm challenge to handle. When copies are free you need to sell something that cannot be copied. If templates are available for free and if basic legal advice is available online for next to nothing – what can you as a lawyer sell? The answer from Gerd Leonhard was trust, creativity and human relationship. Focus on that, on being mobile and visible, in creating connections that make clients like you and like doing business with you, and on adding value. Gerd Leonhard left us with the notion of the “digital Darwinism” and it’s disruption – either you disrupt something or you are disrupted – and the urging to focus on the return of involvement rather than return on investment to cope with and survive in the new digital world.

Following that, VQ‘s Helena Hallgarn‘s seminar on “Earning money whilst you sleep” was a very suitable topic. Helena Hallgarn shared her views on the development on legal services and the possibilities that are out there for law firms that are willing to take on the challenge. Helena Hallgarn made comparisions between the legal market and the changes that have affected the book and music industry and now how Kodak is close to bankruptcy due to an inability to adjust to the new digital world and new competitors. She then provided insights on how to develop innovative service delivery by the use of technology, for example by automating routine legal work and by repackaging knowledge management for clients by use of a document assembly tool. Helena Hallgarn also showed a practical example of this by the online service VQ Legal developed by VQ. The presentation slides are available here: “Earning Money Whilst You Sleep”.

As a summary LawTech Futures made it clear that, as Charles Christian so cleverly put it, “we are seeing a perfect storm in the legal sector, with legal services as the final barrier to break under the consumer revolution”. Some hard facts supporting this were reported with around 100 applications for creating an alternative business structure under the legal services act has been made, one in three top 40 firms are looking to merge with non-law business in next two years and 75% of the law firms in UK are in or have had early merger discussions with each other. Legal process outsourcing is gaining further ground and is predicted to reach a 2 bn dollar turnover in 2015. Reportedly India is now producing three times as many IT graduates as UK, but salaries are one fifth. The digital, networking world of nowness is taking over and all speakers and delegates at LawTech Futures seem to agree on that if you were building a law firm from scratch today you would not do it the way it has been done in the past.

So, what does the future hold? Well, whatever it is, it will be fast. Speed will matter more and more, which will require law firms to use technology to cope with the demands. The future for the legal sector will be about strategic client service delivery, but the exact details cannot be predicted. Just expect the unexpected!