How has technology helped law firms adapt to the Covid-19 crisis, and what does this mean for the future of legal services? We speak with Christina Blacklaws, former President of the Law Society, and now a consultant and advisor to law firms and legal businesses. Christina chairs a number of legal and technology groups, including the Ministry of Justice’s LawTech Delivery Panel and Innovate UK’s Next Generation Services Advisory Board. Christina is an advocate for diversity and inclusion, legal technology and access to justice.
Overnight, we’ve seen that law firms have had to adapt to a new way of operating. What do you think are the biggest challenges facing law firms today?
It depends on the firm. Some have been ahead of the curve: they invested in technology and had already made the move to agile and paperless (or paperlite) working. Their investment has paid off and meant they could make the move to operating remotely seamlessly. There are greater challenges for those firms who were more “traditional” in their approach.
After overcoming the initial challenges of having the right technology (both hardware and software), I think the next challenge will be around business development: how do law firms get in front of new clients? How do they continue to engage in an impactful way when they can’t do the “normal” things like meet for a coffee or network at a conference? I think we will see some real creativity here.
What role do you see technology playing in helping law firms adapt to the new normal?
It’s simple. Firms who were properly using technology have found adapting to the crisis easier. Those who were technophobes are still struggling to adapt. Technology is providing a real lifeline for many law firms, helping them to improve their cashflow and maintain business continuity.
Going forward, the ability to adapt to technological solutions will be the thing which differentiates firms and adds value to the service they deliver clients.
Future-focused law firms should be looking now at what the “new normal” will be following the pandemic crisis. There is a real opportunity to embed the operational changes to shift the culture and re-imagine new ways of delivering legal services which are quite dramatically different to old ways. There is an exciting opportunity to meet client needs in a more direct and holistic way following this crisis.
The firms which will come out of this and thrive are those which have that level of adaptability and commitment to a tech-enabled future.
What impact, if any, do you think the current situation of the Covid-19 crisis will have on the gender imbalance in the legal profession?
I think this is difficult to assess at the moment. It depends on the strategic approach law firms take. In previous recessions we’ve seen a real belt-tightening, which historically is bad for diversity. Women tend to contribute more in terms of non-billable activities like via business development, learning and development, team support and HR. All of these may be undervalued if we face a recession, which is very short-sighted.
On a more optimistic note, anything which disrupts the previous way of doing business in law is potentially a positive thing for diversity and inclusion. For example, changing attitudes towards remote working versus presenteeism.
I think there is a golden opportunity for law firms to embed the practices which they’ve had to adopt in order to operate during this crisis.
I urge all law firms to adopt a new way of working as part of their strategic focus: something which will not only open up a workforce and increase diversity and inclusion, but ultimately enable them to provide a better service to clients.
How do you think legal services can be made more accessible? What role, if any, do you see technology playing in this?
Technology plays a huge role in making legal services more accessible. This isn’t just about accessing courts, it’s about all the steps that come before that and helping those who don’t even realise they have a legal problem. I’m delighted that the government is investing in developing technology solutions to meet this unmet legal need.
What three qualities do you think a modern lawyer should have?
First, the ability to think independently and through an ethical lens. Lawyers need to remember that they are upholders of the rule of law and officers of the court.
Second, emotional intelligence. Lawyers need to be great engagers and communicators. They need to understand what the client wants and needs.
Third, a level of understanding of technology and algorithms to give lawyers a degree of familiarity and comfort. They don’t need to be able to code, but they need to be able to understand the basics to deliver value to their clients.
What’s your long term prediction for the legal sector as a whole?
If lawyers have those three qualities, then I think the future is very bright. I hope that lawyers move from problem solvers to solution providers which prevent problems from happening.
I think that the legal sector will increasingly respect other disciplines. For too long the legal profession has seen business support as just that: support for lawyers rather than an integral peer group which is critical to delivering value to clients.