LawtechUK to turn focus on access to justice and SME law firms

Lennox: Building new plan

LawtechUK is to look at how technology can support greater access to legal services for both consumers and SMEs in the next phase of its development, the organisation’s new director has said.

Alexandra Lennox says the initiative, set up in 2019 by the Ministry of Justice in conjunction with the legal profession, will also see how it could help smaller firms improve their use of technology and access bigger markets.

Having been launched with £2m of public money, the Ministry of Justice has agreed to back the next phase of LawtechUK with £4m in funding.

Ms Lennox has been with it almost from the beginning, focused on delivering its various projects. She has now taken over as director from Jenifer Swallow, tasked with overseeing the initiative’s strategy.

Speaking to Legal Futures, she explains how, as a corporate lawyer at City giant Freshfields, she “realised from very early on that there must be a better way to do things”. She became “obsessive” with how to improve the client experience, moving away from fee-earning to become an innovation consultant and product manager at the firm before joining LawtechUK.

She learnt a lot from Freshfields. It provided “proper product manager training” and had staff working in multi-disciplinary teams. Her role was to provide understanding of the user and transfer that to the developers.

Some large firms in recent years have begun developing technology themselves and Ms Lennox suggests that those that have created a separate arm to do so have been the most successful.

With technology, you have to be prepared to fail and this can be difficult within a law firm environment.

LawtechUK has had a busy beginning and is currently still working through its existing delivery plan; the highest-profile achievements have been supporting dozens of lawtech start-ups through its sandbox and the UK jurisdiction taskforce’s legal statement on cryptoassets and smart contracts.

The taskforce recently took the next step in its work with a consultation on the issue and transfer of digital securities under English private law.

Beyond this is where the new funding will kick in and it will be Ms Lennox’s task to build out a new delivery plan.

With Covid and the state of the economy, “the environment we’re in now as opposed to when the funding was originally granted is very different”, she says, so a key element will be to look at how technology can support greater access to legal services.

“At the beginning [of LawtechUK], there was more of a commercial drive in supporting growth in lawtech”, she says. But this was focused very much on B2B. “The market has matured over that period and we are seeing more B2C offerings. There’s been growth but there are still areas of the market that aren’t being served.”

The levels of unmet need have been well established and Ms Lennox says technology is there to “reach people who aren’t being reached now”.

This is not about technology replacing lawyers. “People are realising that we have quite an important responsibility – whether it’s through people or technology that we serve that responsibility, it needs to be served. It’s about delivering great legal services to people.”

She also wants to engage more with SME law firms. There are three stages to this: “stabilising, modernising, transforming”.

The first is vital – “It’s hard to talk about blockchain when some people aren’t even using Excel” – but LawtechUK’s focus is more on the latter two. The frontline regulators, Ms Lennox notes, are “doing great work on stabilisation”.

One of our biggest challenges, she continues, is “prioritising and assessing where we can best leverage what we have”, and not duplicating what others are doing.

“I like to think we can help where the market isn’t serving or isn’t maturing at pace that’s needed.”

Ms Lennox says one of Lawtech’s particular strengths is its “ability to convene” – such as bringing together all the relevant regulators in the regulatory response unit that sits within the sandbox.

The unit’s work on digital ID during Covid is “a great example” of that and the sharing between the regulators has also helped bring technology up their respective agendas.

She adds: “We have been a bit surprised where there has been regulatory crossover and this is a great means to surface that, especially when a lot of companies are looking to expand across UK. It’s been really helpful for those companies.”

The next tranche of money will take LawtechUK to 2025. So, what does she hope to have achieved by then? “I really think there’s an opportunity for technology to support greater access to legal services for consumers and SMEs, and we’ve only just touched the surface of that – not just direct to consumer but also how smaller law firms could use technology to improve and access a greater market too.”

There should be a shift as well to how technology can support a better client experience – it should not just be about being quicker and cheaper – and efforts to see how it can support challenges in particular areas, such as home buying and selling, dispute resolution, and trade coming out of Brexit.

“We are speaking to everyone in the market. Part of the last two and a half years has been about establishing those relationships. Sometimes it’s connecting the dots or bringing the right regulator to the table. We are looking at where that can be accelerated and what value we can bring.”

Ms Lennox says another challenge will be improving the adoption of certain B2B technologies, both in law firms and in in-house teams. “We’ve made headway but there’s still a long way to go. It would be nice to see some targets around adoption.”

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