Government awards cash for Covid lawtech innovation

Denis-Smith: Scaling up remote working presents a fundamental challenge

Technology to support remote working, open justice, communication with clients and online will signing are among businesses to received government funding supporting Covid-related innovation.

Innovate UK, the UK’s innovation agency, received 20,000 applications for the competition – which issued awards of £25,000 to £50,000 – encouraging innovation in response to the disruption caused by Covid-19.

This led it to double the amount of funding originally allocated to £40m.

Obelisk Support, which has helped pioneer remote working in the legal profession by providing law firms and in-house departments with flexible lawyers to support specific needs, received nearly £50,000 to help SMEs of all types manage the shift to remote working.

Obelisk’s plan is to develop the capabilities of the mature system it has built to manage a distributed workforce of over 2,000 lawyers with variable levels of flexibility in terms of location and hours.

At the end of the six-month project, the aim is to deliver a remote-working productivity tool that can help businesses manage an entire workforce that is working in a blended office/home model.

It will allow businesses to have an overview of the skills, availability and workload of staff so that they can match incoming work to the right people, and then track the progress and time spent on completing the task.

Obelisk chief executive Dana Denis-Smith said: “While there has been a lot of talk about Zoom, Microsoft Teams and the like because of Covid-19, scaling up remote working presents a fundamental challenge to businesses: the need to define, organise, schedule, negotiate and track work being done by a team.

“Trust and transparency are key ingredients to ensuring that a blended workforce that works on and off site is productive and engaged. Understanding this balance has been at the heart of how Obelisk has worked and scaled for the past decade.

“In an office setting, this is often done by informal discussions or in small face-to-face meetings. Attempting to replicate this model remotely is difficult and many businesses will often revert to ad hoc solutions, such as shared spreadsheets and endless email threads, which lack the control and insight to be truly effective.”

Ms Denis-Smith said it was “particularly appropriate” that its bid succeeded in the month Obelisk celebrated its 10th anniversary.

“Our success shows that, if remote working can be embraced and managed by a deeply traditional profession such as the law, then it should hold no fears for other businesses.”

Thirdfort – a web-hosted software platform that facilitates the exchange of money in property transactions – received £50,000 to develop this and build a remote ID-checking and e-signing/witnessing mobile app to allow any individual with a smartphone to write and sign their will, whilst getting the necessary legal advice.

Its application said: “We will sell the product to wills lawyers who will be able to use it in combination with offering legal advice over telephone/video-conference to offer a fully remote wills service.

“This new remote offering can then endure post-pandemic, upgrading the archaic, inefficient and potentially insecure way wills are currently executed.”

Etic Lab, a research and design consultancy, received £50,000 to develop a secure integrated communications suite for the not-for-profit legal advice sector.

“Our platform will allow advice providers to chat with clients and leave messages via video, audio or text, to securely transfer important documents and to set appointments with accompanying email and text notifications. It will also support peer-to-peer discovery and communication between advice providers, as well as providing a portal for client feedback.”

Transparently, a secure and encrypted online communication platform, received the full amount too so it could expand its existing product to introduce a “unified communications feature to clients and legal professionals within family law”.

It explained: “The intention is to address the additional workload, manual cross-referencing and over-reliance on email, resulting from the Covid-19 self-isolation measures and to improve the ability of private individuals to access justice effectively…

“It is important that we enable private clients to reduce communication costs and law firms to collaborate effectively, both internally and with clients, to ensure that those clients are proactively advised and protected at all times.

JUST:Access, a not-for-profit social enterprise modelling alternative ways of providing legal services, was awarded £40,000 for a project to improve open justice with the sudden escalation of remote hearings.

Using speech-to-text software, its project creates automated transcripts from recordings, and imposes “rich structure on this data that can be analysed collectively to analyse trends and garner insights in unprecedented ways”.

Belfast-based Consumer Code for Online Dispute Resolution Ltd was awarded £48,400 for its online mediation platform.

Its application said: “Traditionally operated as a face-to-face industry, mediation/arbitration practitioners have found themselves plunged into a world where they can no longer travel nor meet clients. Often self-employed sole traders, they face imminent financial ruin…

“Covid-19 has inadvertently created the ideal environment in which transformational change can be embedded with minimal institutional resistance, as the industry now understands the consequences of the over-reliance it previously placed on face-to-face practices.”

Finally, a company called Ago Actum received £32,162 to create a legal services robot to replace the initial meeting of a client with a lawyer and “provide a better initial facts-gathering exercise”.

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