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The legal profession has remained essentially the same for the last few centuries. One could be forgiven for thinking that, other than the introduction of fax and then email for communication purposes, the profession has shown little aptitude for adapting to changing times. Traditional practitioners and clients alike tend to believe that it will continue to operate this way, regardless of its inefficiencies and the injustices that they cause.

In our work we keep an eye on developing trends in the legal professions in other jurisdictions. Clear trends have begun to emerge, and we can see that certain parts of the profession are becoming increasingly dynamic and are showing signs of extensive change – for the ultimate good of the markets that they serve.

The trends that we’d like to focus on here are:

  • the use of technology to add efficiencies to the profession,
  • the use of innovative business models to improve access to quality legal services, and
  • the use of outsourcing to combat the cost of high-volume work.

In February last year, we attended Legal Tech New York, a conference and trade show focused on technology for the legal profession. The New York event was one of around ten similar events that take place annually around the world. There was so much content to be shared that the 2000 attendees could choose between six streams of talks, running concurrently for three days. Interestingly, we noted that New York State’s Continuous Legal Education (CLE) credits were awarded to attorneys attending the conference, reinforcing the widely-held approach in the US that technology is a vital part of the profession, and important to keep abreast of.

Technology has application to the legal space at many points of inefficiency. Tools include those for time capturing, practice and workflow management, e-discovery and document review, case law and other source research, automatic document generation, document collaboration, and invoicing and collection.

Many of these applications, whilst representing an improvement on more manual and time-consuming tasks, do so by a simple linear automation of such tasks. The more interesting technologies are the ones that provide a completely new approach, like the use of big data analytics and machine learning to show relevant relationships between data sets.

One example is Ravel Law, which uses big data analytics to produce interactive visualisation maps showing the ‘big picture’ on any given search query. The maps show a series of dots – each dot representing a case or judgment dealing with the searched term – and the dots grow in size with each citation by a subsequent court. At a glance, the user can identify the leading cases on the topic, and then navigate into each case to learn how the point was pronounced upon and interpreted in subsequent judgments.

ravel-pic

Ravel Law also offers judge analytics, enabling users to see analyses of judges’ behaviour, showing matters considered on the relevant topic and other judges prevalently cited.

Ross, built on IBM’s cognitive computer, Watson, uses natural language processing to ‘understand’ a legal question posed (as opposed to conducting a key word search). It then uses machine learning to sift through thousands of content sources, provides an answer and lists its authorities ranked by relevancy.

These and other tools hold the promise of lawyers being able to greatly reduce their time spent researching and preparing, as well as drafting and reviewing work. Lawyers with their clients’ best interests at heart should be embracing these tools where available, which will ultimately bring the cost of their services down and improve the quality of the products delivered.

While earlier iterations of these technologies were incapable of handling the nuances particular to the profession, more recent versions are showing signs of having overcome these shortfalls, and now even claim to be superior to traditional methods, because they eliminate human error. Although there will always be a need for the ultimate exercise of human judgment, which cannot be done by machines, the preparatory work enabling that exercise of judgment will be vastly streamlined.

The second trend is the move by lawyers to use innovative business models to offer legal services at significantly lower costs than traditional models. These alternative legal service providers, dubbed ‘New Law’, have identified aspects of the traditional law firm model that contribute to high overhead structures – which are then passed on to clients – and found creative ways to do without them. The move is enabled, to different extents, by the intelligent use of technology.

Some of the largest players in this space are Axiom, a legal service provider which has over 1500 employees across 15 offices globally, and Avvo, a US-based online legal marketplace receiving 6 million consumer visits per month. Avvo allows posting of legal questions for free advice, fixed fee calls to panellists and access to its repository of lawyers, each of whom is profiled and rated.

Caveat Legal, South Africa’s first alternative legal service provider, is a panel of independent former ‘Big Firm’ attorneys who consult directly to business. It is gaining enormous traction in an economy that is showing signs of being unable or unwilling to sustain the traditional incumbents. The use of technology allows us to remain completely virtual, unencumbered by heavy overheads, which gives us a clear price advantage without having to compromise on quality.

Lastly, we are seeing the emergence and consolidation of legal process outsourcing (LPO) businesses, who provide cost effective solutions to high-volume document review and other processes traditionally carried out by junior fee-charging professional staff.

The landscape is changing from the staid picture of the past, to a much more dynamic one of the future. This is good news for clients and lawyers alike, and presents a range of opportunities for those with the right mindset. Clients now have more choice when in need of legal services, and need not compromise quality for cost; and lawyers have more options on how, where and when they work.

In monitoring these trends and watching them trickle into the local space, we believe that there is much to be optimistic about, and we work daily towards our goal: a profession that is more accessible to both lawyers and clients.

Yvonne Wakefield

Founder and CEO of Caveat Legal