City sets out innovation blueprint amid fears over Covid impact

City of London: Five-year vision

The Covid-19 pandemic risks the huge progress made in using technology to innovate in legal services and find new ways of working, according to a report from the City of London Corporation.

The Square Mile’s local authority set out a series of recommendations stressing the importance of innovation in legal services, including further upgrading the courts and “upskilling” lawyers.

London Recharged, a report on how the City more broadly should evolve over the next five years to maintain its pre-eminent position, included a detailed focus on the legal sector.

It said the accelerated adoption of technology because of Covid has been “a great success story and opens up huge opportunities for how London and the UK can be the undisputed leading legal centre for the world”.

But at the same time, “many firms have had to reduce budgets for innovation and tech adoption and reallocate funds to grassroots upgrades to enable business continuity”.

This not only jeopardised innovation as a whole, the corporation cautioned, “but also risks replicating old habits rather than embracing new ways of working”.

It urged law firms to focus instead on developing “new and different dispute resolution strategies, tactics, and platforms on which more diverse voices could be heard”.

The report continued: “Moving forward, London needs to maintain momentum as the leading hub for the provision of tech-enabled legal services, innovative practices, and collaboration forums both for remote workers and remote clients.

“To do so, it needs reliable infrastructure that can deliver key services. It further requires a renewed mandate for increasing the adoption and integration of technology into all levels of the practice and the design of a user-friendly systems.”

This meant reinforcing national infrastructure and digital capabilities – such as fully virtual court hearings – to make UK legal services accessible from a global market.

There was also a role for London to play “as a connection point for regional legal services as well as offshore and onshore legal services centres”, the report said.

“Encouraging the unbundling of case elements and investing in regional centres can provide consistent client services. By lessening the geographical weighting towards London through remote working, law firms will become open to diversified national and international talent.”

Its first main recommendation was to invest in and roll out tech-enabled court processes, including a formal joint review with the Ministry of Justice of the lessons learned from holding court hearings remotely during the crisis.

The corporation called for the “comprehensive digitalisation” of basic court infrastructure. “While some digitalisation is underway, remote hearings are not uniformly available across all locations or levels of court and are subject to delay.”

The courts should be approached “as a ‘service’ rather than a place”, members of the profession and the public should be consulted, and best practice from other jurisdictions incorporated.

The second recommendation was to emphasise the importance of innovation in legal services, encouraging investment in the lawtech tools and infrastructure needed to serve clients and supporting a cultural shift.

This would come both through public support, such as innovation funding schemes, and by creating a supportive regulatory environment.

“The City of London Corporation should work with regulators, professional bodies, and the government to adapt policies and procedures to reflect changes made possible through tech. These should allow for alternatives that are fit for the digital age and facilitate remote working, such as digital signatures, e-witnessing, and cloud computing.”

There should also be increased investment into London as a hub for lawtech development, testing, and adoption

The corporation praised Lawtech UK’s recently announced sandbox as “a very positive step in the right direction” which should be adequately funded.

It plans to pilot an innovation programme next month to “provide a broad forum for the entire legal industry” to “collaborate on identifying challenges in legal services delivery” through a series of workshops.

The report said lawyers should be “upskilled” to embrace digitised legal services as the status quo. This would mean co-ordinating training programmes at university, law school and firms “to equip lawyers with the skills they need”, and creating incentives for academic institutions to adapt legal qualifications programmes.

The corporation should also work with industry “to develop an e-training hub for tech-based mentoring between firms to share experiences and ensure SMEs providing legal services are supported in digital transformation”.

The report’s final focus was on financing the development of platforms for alternative dispute resolution – such as virtual arbitration and mediation – as well as scaling up existing online portals to resolve disputes, including court claims.

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