The experience of the pandemic has given lawyers greater confidence in innovation and technology, leading to a “step change” in their use over the past three years, major new research has found.
As a result, firms have become more responsive to clients’ needs, according to the profession’s oversight regulator, the Legal Services Board (LSB).
It surveyed 1,310 providers, made up of solicitors’ firms, barristers’ chambers, other regulated law firms and unregulated businesses too.
It looked at the use of 13 specific technologies, finding video conferencing (80%) and cyber-security (71%) the most common, followed by cloud-based solutions, electronic signatures and ID checking tools, each used by around half of firms.
A third tier of technologies, each used by 10-30% of firms, include websites with interactive features and live chat or virtual assistants. The fourth tier, used by 5% or less, include more complex tools, such as technology assisted review, predictive technology, robotic process automation, and blockchain or distributed ledger technology.
In all, 61% of firms have implemented at least one of 13 technologies in the previous three years.
“The Covid-19 pandemic has been a critical driver in firms recently investing in new or improved services,” the LSB said. “The second most reported driver for investing in new or improved services has been increasing or changing demand from consumers.”
Firms “overwhelmingly” reported that the pandemic had increased their level of trust in, and use of, technology and innovation. “The increased cost of living and doing business and leaving the European Union have also had an impact, but less so.”
Nearly three-quarters of firms found their new or improved services cost the same or less than expected.
“Firms report significant positive impacts from new or improved services, including improving the speed of service delivery, its costs, increased revenue from existing clients and the ability to attract new clients.”
A third of firms now offer online services and half (50%) regularly use social media – 15% of firms use digital comparison tools and a further 13% are planning to.
Almost all firms said implementing new technologies has made them more responsive to clients’ needs.
Six in ten firms agreed that their clients expected them to use technology to deliver legal services and 49% that technology could make it cheaper to do so.
The LSB concluded: “Taken as a whole, these results indicate a step change rather than revolution in the use of innovation and technology to develop and deliver legal services…
“The most commonly used technologies are also commonly used outside of legal services. They arguably have greater social acceptability and are seen as relatively more straightforward.
“In contrast, the most advanced technologies still have the lowest take-up, although they also have notable percentages of firms planning to use them in the next three years.”
While not all of the 13 technologies would be appropriate for every firm, “it is positive to see that firms are increasingly taking up technologies for access in the interests of legal service consumers”, the LSB said.
“Further, as all but one of the technologies [to increase access to legal services] are being used by less than half of firms, there is potential still for much greater use, and with it, impact.
“It is that possibility to increase accessibility, flexibility and affordability of legal services to those who need them we continue to watch for, and consider the role of regulation in supporting and encouraging.”
LSB chair Alan Kershaw added: “From AI to video conferencing, technology has the potential to widen access to legal services dramatically, and the LSB is committed to ensuring that regulation unlocks its benefits for consumers and providers.
“The Covid-19 pandemic has speeded up the adoption of technology, and we must build on that momentum to foster a culture of innovation that designs services around the needs of consumers.”
He said he was encouraged that the perception of regulation as a constraint to introducing new technology has fallen compared to the previous surveys, but several factors still prevented the wider take-up of technology.
“Regulators must be proactive in understanding the opportunities and risks and remove barriers which prevent innovators entering the sector and stop consumers from accessing services.
“The LSB is developing new statutory guidance for regulators on promoting the use of technology for access and will consult publicly later this year.
“This guidance will clarify our expectations of regulators, including the need for regulatory frameworks to be open to technology and innovation that benefits consumers and that regulation should be a positive, enabling driver for change.”
A large piece of research commissioned by the Solicitors Regulation Authority in 2021 also concluded that the previous year had seen a “step change” in the adoption of legal technology and innovation, in part as a result of Covid-19.