“A digital business that happens to do law” – is this the future?

Wild: law is something that is set to be radically reshaped

Wild: law is something that is set to be radically reshaped

One of the country’s leading local government innovators has told his council that “in future, we will no longer have a legal business that happens to use technology. Instead, it will be a digital business that happens to do law”.

Solicitor Geoff Wild, director of governance and law at Kent County Council, also said that public sector lawyers have a “greater duty than most” to address the country’s access to justice deficit.

His comments came in his review of a three-year change project for Kent Legal Services (KLS), called ‘Evolution, Efficiency, Enterprise’, which delivered both significant costs savings and extra income for the council.

KLS has led the way in innovating local government legal services, being a fully-traded operation with income targets. It receives no internal subsidy, has no guaranteed work or tied clients, and competes for work in the open market.

In each of the three years to 2015, KLS averaged a surplus of £2.5m on income of £8.5m. A decade ago KLS managed a £241,000 surplus on income of £3.6m.

Between 2012 and 2015 it reduced the cost of service provision by £1.1m, saved £410,000 with advice on projects which would otherwise have needed external advice, generated £244,000 in income from 206 new external clients, and made £155,000 through various training initiatives. It recorded a further £2.3m in non-cashable savings and efficiencies through “initiatives and activities to suppress/avoid costs” to the council.

In addition, it is now handling 1,000 hours of advocacy through in-house resource, five times the amount when the project started, and developed a series of workflows that automate the delivery of legal advice in areas such as stopping-up orders, empty home loans and secured lending. The methodology is now being applied to more complex areas, such as care proceedings.

Mr Wild said: “We are currently the market leader in the provision of specialist local government and public sector legal advice and want to stay that way. But it won’t happen if we simply continue to do what we do now or at the pace we do it. The Evolution project has achieved a great deal in the past three years, but further change is both inevitable and necessary.”

One way, he said, would be to create regional hubs. “There is a real opportunity to remove waste and duplication in the operation of back-office services across the whole of the public sector by establishing Kent as a regional hub for the south-east, into which literally dozens of public sector bodies (not just councils, but health bodies, educational establishments, charitable bodies, NGOs, etc) could each transfer their legal work.”

He also made the case to create an alternative business structure (ABS) to give KLS “full trading freedom” in the light of Solicitors Regulation Authority rules which limit the kinds of clients it can currently serve.

Legal Futures reported recently that the council was close to identifying its preferred ABS joint venture partner, but a final decision on that, which was expected last week, has been delayed.

Mr Wild said that not only did KLS need to address access to justice problems, but it also had to “more than move the needle only slightly”.

He observed: “Some would say there are more lawyers than needed. That would be true if they were serving the under-served. Instead, they are primarily focused on a shrinking share of the ‘top tier’ legal work and cannot afford to provide services to the poorly served at rates the clients can afford.

“Unfortunately, whilst there is currently an enormous legal market, it is served so expensively and with such complexity that it has become inaccessible for 80% to 90% of the population.”

The way to address the issue was through disruptive innovation and investment in technology, Mr Wild said.

“Law is something that is set to be radically reshaped by the emergence of technology that, at its heart, is about the management and manipulation of data on an entirely new scale. This is a characteristic that has only recently shown up in law in a significant fashion, but it is due to transform the sector beyond recognition…

“Some economic forces are too great to be ignored, dismissed or regulated. An industry ripe for disruption will be disrupted. Tsunamis cannot be stopped. The only thread that ultimately saves the industry is the thread of disruption. All others have broken. In future, we will no longer have a legal business that happens to use technology. Instead, it will be a digital business that happens to do law.

“It is not yet a tsunami, but the surf is retreating and we must be ready for the advance of the coming disruption. To do that requires investment now to make savings in the future. Whether that investment comes from within the council or externally remains to be determined.

“One thing is certain – maintaining the status quo is not an option if [KLS] is to continue to innovate, make progress and enjoy the success of the past 10 years.”

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