Lawyers “underestimate public appetite” for using technology

Hill: We mustn’t allow misconceptions to hold back progress

Lawyers underestimate the public’s appetite for using technology in the delivery of legal services, a major study by the Legal Services Board (LSB) and Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has found.

The public sees cybercrime as the biggest threat from legaltech, while lawyers were most concerned about the impersonal nature of the service.

The research was commissioned to explore willingness amongst the public and lawyers to use legal technology, and understand the extent to which people believed it was acceptable for wider society, and what limited or drove acceptability.

Community Research surveyed 1,020 members of the public and 166 lawyers working directly with consumers. To explore the issues in depth, they hosted online forums with 36 members of the public and 29 lawyers.

It found a majority of the public supported the use of technology in legal services, both for themselves personally, and for society more generally.

“Most people think technology can bring benefits to legal services, helping the sector keep up with advances in wider society, and potentially offering faster, more convenient/accessible and more affordable services.”

People were, “perhaps unsurprisingly”, more comfortable with well-established technology, like video conferencing, and more wary of newer concepts like smart contracts – and particularly tools that used artificial intelligence.

“Legal professionals are also broadly supportive of the use of technology in legal services, and most feel it will improve services for themselves and their clients.

“That said, there is a greater appetite for technology in the sector than legal professionals think: they are more conservative in their assumptions about how willing their clients would be to use digital tools compared to their own willingness.

“This does not match the public’s stated willingness to use technology in legal services.”

The public saw the risk of cybercrime as the top drawback of legal tech (28%), followed by the threat to data privacy (27%) and ‘impersonal’ nature of the service (15%).

Lawyers had a very different view, with almost half (45%) most concerned that the service was impersonal, followed in joint second place by the lack of digital access for some people and cybercrime (both with 14%).

They were more willing than the public to use video consultations, 83% compared to 66%, and e-signatures, 75% to 68%. They were more reluctant when it came to chatbots, 26% compared to 39%, and smart contracts, 36% to 45%.

The research found that in each category of tech, lawyers underestimated the willingness of clients to use it.

The public and lawyers had very different priorities when it came to the main benefits of legaltech, with the public overwhelmingly attracted to affordability (45%), followed by better accuracy or consistency (17%) and a speedier service (15%).

For lawyers, the top benefit was the speedier service (36%), followed by greater convenience (23%) and affordability (20%).

The study also found a hardcore of members of the public who were totally opposed to the use of technology in legal services, present both in the survey (11%) and the online forums.

“Forum participants expressed particular concern at the idea of fully automated systems giving advice and making decisions on legal issues. They preferred that technology was used to support – rather than replace – the delivery of legal services by human lawyers.”

Researchers said that in the surveys “both legal professionals and the public think it is more acceptable to use technology in straightforward cases, and less acceptable to use it in cases that are complex, sensitive or involve high stakes”.

Asked what one thing would make them more comfortable about the use of technology in legal services, by far the most popular choice for the public was strong cybersecurity and data protection regulations and systems (22%).

This was followed by improved guidance and training in how to use legal tech and a blend of tech with face-to-face services, both with 8%.

“Ultimately, the public and legal professionals think that regulators, technology developers, and legal businesses all have a role to play in building public confidence and supporting uptake of technology in legal services.”

Matthew Hill, chief executive of the LSB, commented: “The research confirms that consumers have a greater appetite to use technology than the legal profession tends to assume. We mustn’t allow misconceptions to hold back progress.

“Effective regulation is an essential part of building trust and confidence in technology. Regulators can help do this by making clear how the standards, quality checks and systems of redress that currently apply to in-person legal services also apply to technology-enabled legal services.”

Paul Philip, chief executive of the SRA, added: “People increasingly expect to be able to access services at a touch of a button – a trend accelerated by the pandemic. It has the potential to make life easier, while also making services more affordable.

“So it is not a surprise these results show there is a strong appetite for getting legal help through technology. It won’t be the right solution for everyone, particularly those who can’t easily use a smartphone or tap into wifi.”

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