TECHNOLOGY is set to revolutionise the way legal services are delivered, meaning law firms are going to have to make a choice between focusing solely on premium work or embracing new business models, according to professional services giant PwC.

In its 2017 law firm report ‘Time for Change’, which is based on the results of a survey carried out among a range of UK and global law firms, the consultancy business noted that “an increasing number of firms are viewing technology not just as a means to boost efficiency, but also as a way to reimagine how legal services are delivered”.

“Whilst clients are still willing to pay a premium for the best advice, they want to know that their providers are making full use of available technology so that they are not paying for expensive resources to undertake repetitive work manually,” the report added.

Loading article content

Some firms, such as Ashurst and Pinsent Masons, are at the forefront of the technological advance, with the former’s Glasgow-based legal technologists blending legal knowledge with software development expertise to come up with legal solutions while the latter has built its own artificial intelligence to help standardise the way its lawyers operate.

They are in the minority, though, according to the report, which said that “most firms have made progress with more traditional digital technologies like mobile apps and client collaboration tools, but adoption of more cutting-edge technologies like artificial intelligence and robotic process automation is still immature”.

David Snell, the leader of PwC’s law firm advisory group, said: “At the moment, the focus seems to be on updating or replacing old systems.

“Firms need to be more agile in embracing emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, which will ultimately help them achieve more effective staffing levels and react faster to changing client demands.

“Fundamental action is needed to future-proof the shape and operation of the legal sector.

“Technology will impact all areas, from client service delivery to business support and, importantly, staff recruitment and retention.”

For Mike Polson, managing partner of Ashurst’s Glasgow office, creating the role of legal technologist has been key to enabling the firm to retain staff. Initially the firm hired only legal analysts, who handle early-stage legal work such as document review and due diligence, when it launched in the city four years ago.

“There are new roles emerging all the time and that means we can develop and retain our talent,” Mr Polson said.

“We have a lot of people who come in at graduate level and it’s about looking at how we can equip them with relevant skills to develop and progress their careers within the rapidly changing legal market.”

The firm’s smarter working initiative, which allows staff to decide where and when they want to work so long as productivity is not affected, also plays into the theme of retention.

Others in Scotland, such as Burness Paull and Morton Fraser, are also looking at how best to roll out agile working to their staff, although PwC said that the concept is yet to be embraced by the sector as a whole.

“It’s positive to note that over 70 per cent of firms have delivered or embarked on remote and mobile working, but with work still to do to make their use a cultural norm,” the report said.

While technology has been the enabler of agile working in the sense that it frees staff up to work anywhere and at any time, PwC suggested that it will become even more revolutionary by allowing firms to rethink how work is done in addition to considering where it is done.

“Agility will be key in wider workforce planning as firms adapt to the myriad of changes facing the sector,” it said. “Technology and changing client demands will impact the mix and skillset of staff required and, indeed, artificial intelligence resourcing tools may ultimately help firms to achieve optimal staffing.”

This, said PwC, means firms will have to start make difficult choices about their futures now to ensure they remain relevant in a rapidly changing environment.

“The premium law firms of today will face a critical strategic choice either to focus solely on the premium work and effectively withdraw from areas where their business model is unsustainable or to embrace new business models where business as usual legal services are delivered very differently,” it added.