Don’t believe the hype: “Modest” take-up of lawtech

Sako: Widespread hype

The take-up of many forms of lawtech are “modest” in England and Wales, and especially so for technology assisted by artificial intelligence (AI), despite the hype around it, new research has found.

It said that fewer than 25% of solicitors polled had so far used AI-backed legal software, the technology anticipated eventually to drive the transformation of legal practice and delivery of services to the public.

The Oxford University research, conducted in association with the Law Society, also found low levels of technology training among solicitors, but that where it was provided, they were keener for more.

The report’s authors were Professor Mari Sako of Saïd Business School, law professor John Armour and Richard Parnham, a postdoctoral research fellow at Saïd, as part of a project entitled ‘Unlocking the potential of AI in English law’.

They sent questionnaires to 10,000 randomly selected solicitors, but only received 353 completed responses, and so they made “no claim to the representativeness of our sample”. Two-thirds worked in law firms and most of the rest in-house. A third qualified after 2010.

Among solicitors who used lawtech at all, the overwhelming majority, 80%, did so in document or knowledge management, accounts or time recording (69%) and document automation/matter workflow (43%).

Of those who had used AI, just over a quarter did so for legal research, 16% for due diligence, and 13% for disclosure-type review, with regulatory compliance and contract analytics also featuring.

While more than half of solicitors in private practice thought their organisations had grasped the challenges brought about by new technologies – especially partners – the figure was just 19% among in-house lawyers.

But at the same time, only 19% agreed that their organisation captured data effectively so that it could be used by legal technology, with solicitors in law firms more concerned about this than their in-house counterparts.

The report, Lawtech adoption and training, found little evidence of widespread training in lawtech. Where solicitors had received at least a day of it in the last three years, it was mostly in relation to particular software packages adopted by their employer (38% of respondents).

This was followed by training in the legal issues raised by use of AI/technology (12%) and project management (11%).

The report said: “Training in a particular software package is highly specific; putting this to one side, the majority of respondents had received no generic training in skills relevant to new technologies in the previous three years.”

Most expected they would need some technology training in the next three years, especially in data analytics and legal issues raised by use of AI/technology. Perhaps unsurprisingly, those who had received prior training on technology were more likely to anticipate the need for more than those who had not.

“Our findings indicate a potentially self-reinforcing division between solicitors who are trained in digital technology and those who are not,” the researchers said.

They added: “Organisations that give their lawyers lawtech training now may benefit from a virtuous circle, with their lawyers better able to identify their future lawtech training needs.”

But though 41% of solicitors believed they were sufficiently trained to use new technology at work, nearly four out of five of them also agreed that productivity at their organisation could be improved further by training. Associates and assistants at law firms were more likely to feel this than partners.

A majority (60%) agreed that lawyers should become familiar with non-legal specialisms such as data science and project management, but there was no consensus whether this was best done by working together with non-lawyers, or through lawyers themselves acquiring multi-disciplinary expertise.

A significant minority (40%) of solicitors worked in multi-disciplinary teams, defined as working on a day-to-day basis with IT/legal innovation specialists, legal project managers, data scientists, and/or process mapping experts.

They were more likely to use AI-assisted lawtech than solicitors who did not work in such teams.

Professor Sako said: “Further research is needed on this issue, to facilitate the emergence of a tech-enabled, tech-savvy, solicitors’ profession in England and Wales.”

The researchers concluded that the take-up of lawtech was “modest”.

They pointed out that while solicitors working in law firms were “more likely to adopt… non-AI lawtech applications than those who work in-house, the reverse was true for AI-enabled applications for legal research”.

Professor Sako said: “Given the widespread hype around legal practice innovation in general and AI-assisted lawtech in particular, we have a picture of a relatively low level of take-up of, and training for, lawtech among our survey participants.”

Law Society chief executive, Paul Tennant, added: “This survey offers an important snapshot of lawtech adoption in England and Wales and highlights the training solicitors need to improve their expertise.

“We hope this will prove a useful resource for law firms when considering how best to introduce new technologies into their business.”

The project is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council via UK Research and Innovation, an umbrella group of research bodies.

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