Using the right tech “should be a competence requirement”

Swallow: Legal sector is very complicated for tech innovators

Being able to apply the right technology tool to service clients should become a competence requirement for lawyers, the former head of LawtechUK has suggested.

Jenifer Swallow, an ex-general counsel and now a strategic adviser to companies, said that without a specific competence requirement, lawyers “won’t be encouraged to do anything beyond their highly pressured day jobs”.

Ms Swallow said she found it “surprising and worrying” that research by the Legal Services Board (LSB) on the use of technology in the legal sector, published in June, found that 20% of law firms were “not on cyber, not on the cloud, not using e-signatures or digital IDs, when they are so much easier for clients”.

This raised the question of whether there should be a competence requirement for lawyers to be able to apply “the correct tools” for their clients to receive services in a beneficial way.

Ms Swallow also said the legal sector, with its 11 regulators, was a “really complicated environment” for tech innovators to get into.

Speaking at a webinar hosted by the LSB on insights from the research, she said firms often lacked access to people with experience in innovation and technology to consider the opportunities.

She added that having been “forced” to adopt technology by the pandemic did not mean the legal sector could “afford to coast” afterwards.

Tom May, research manager at the LSB, said the group that “stood out” in terms of online services in the report were alternative business structures, while one of the report’s “surprises” came from the 150 responses from unregulated law firms, out of a total of 1,310.

Some might think that unregulated meant “unfettered”, but the unregulated sector was not a “homogenous block that all looks very similar” and ranged from large corporations to “cottage industry” will writers.

Mr May said it was “not necessarily the place to look” for innovation.

David Abbott, a member of the Legal Services Consumer Panel and chief executive of the Free Representation Unit at Manchester Metropolitan University, said unmet legal need was “top of the agenda” for the panel.

Technology had a “really important role to play” in connecting consumers to the services they needed, expanding them and reducing the cost.

However, the presence of “digitally excluded people” meant that providers should not “put all their eggs in one basket” and offer a variety of provision.

Mr Abbott said consumers generally preferred a “hybrid approach”, with a face-to-face initial meeting followed by email updates. Technology could help law firms offer unbundled services, he noted.

He added that where he worked, in the third sector, resources needed to adopt technology were “a really big issue”.

The LSB’s consultation on draft statutory guidance promoting technology and innovation to improve access to legal services, launched in July, closes next month, ahead of a final version being agreed and published early next year.

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