On Tuesday night, the Law Society of New South Wales officially launched what is being described as Australia’s most comprehensive report to help lawyers better understand and tackle future challenges and opportunities facing the profession.
The Future Committee was established by the Law Society of NSW 2016 and its Future of Innovation in the Profession (FLIP) report is the culmination of research and consultation with more than 100 professionals.
When speaking about the drivers behind the report, Law Society of NSW President, Pauline Wright said:
The Law Society was determined to better understand the forces at play in our profession and help arm our members with the insights, knowledge and skills needed to succeed and thrive in the future.
Past Society President and Chair of the Future Committee, Gary Ulman, said:
We weren’t afraid to set ourselves an ambitious task – our Inquiry aimed to not only investigate key trends shaping our industry, but also develop practical recommendations to help future-proof our profession.
Key Findings & Recommendations
Changing cultures, consumer pressure and lower prices are driving increased use of technology
Some of the main drivers of change include consumers seeking value for money and expecting lawyers to be abreast of, and use, technology. According to the Report:
Clients in the wider community have an appetite for cheaper offerings and prefer predictable costs. Solicitors are also encountering expectations that they use technology to provide service in a contemporary way.”
One of the key demographics identified as driving these changes are millennials. As digital natives, they are early-adopters of new technologies as well as faster, cheaper and more effective ways of accessing services online – think Airbnb, Uber, GoGet and Xero.
The Report provides that low-cost or free solutions like ‘DoNotPay’ a free online service (or robot lawyer) designed by a Stanford law student which overturned 160,000 parking tickets in New York and London are growing in popularity.
Law graduates of the future need a range of new skills and knowledge
The Report focuses on law schools and PLT to produce ‘practice-ready’ graduates, suggesting that students be familiar with using new technology such as data analytics, as well as developing business skills and resilience, flexibility and the ability to adapt to change. Research and consideration is necessary to determine how these skills can be included in existing curricula. The Report also identifies that as legal technology develops and matures, new roles are likely to emerge.
Innovation has the potential to enhance the personal well-being of members of the profession if the introduction of change is supported appropriately
While the Report identifies change in the profession as necessary and inevitable, it provides that individuals cope with change differently and that lawyers in both the private and public sectors need to be supported and trained through this process, possibly by introducing skills and practices that promote wellbeing into existing or new CPD units.
One government department came up with a novel solution to the challenge of older workers embracing technology. When some workers refused to undertake compulsory computer training, they were matched with younger staff from Gen Y, Gen X and millennial generations. The initiative not only saw the older workers pass the course but also younger workers benefit significantly from the depth of knowledge and experienced shared by their more experienced colleagues. Robyn Bradley, Mental Health consultant says:
I think if we can get the young lawyers working more with the older lawyers to help them with their fears about the technology and to show them how it can be used; and at the same time the older lawyers can pass on practice wisdom and show the young ones that they do know a thing or two … that would be good.”
The Report recommends noting the risk of adverse mental health impacts associated with rapid changes and to focus on facilitating wellbeing when delivering training or drafting new material to assist with such change.
A centre for legal innovation projects to research and support change should be established
The Report noted a number of trends emerging from the use of technology in the legal profession including the potential to make legal work more enjoyable, effective and efficient as well as promoting competition and changing client expectations.
The Report recommends that the Society establishes a centre for legal innovation projects that actively facilitates innovation in legal technology and engages in the development of emerging technologies. The centre would also conduct and present research into ethical and regulatory dimensions of innovation and technology. It should also raise awareness of justice-related innovation including online dispute resolution.
Efficacy of online legal documents should be researched including by analysing complaints made by consumers and investigating regulation of online legal information
The Report notes that the popularity of cheap legal documents made readily available to the public online has resulted in an increase in clients only contacting solicitors when they need to determine if the ‘standard’ documents they have purchased are fit for purpose, or to resolve a dispute that has arisen.
Over the last 10-15 years, in particular, the focus of solicitors’ practices has shifted from transactional to contentious largely because of the work of DIY clients. Many clients, for example, are taking more steps to secure their rights unaided such as relying on online legal documents which may turn out to be ‘not fit for purpose’ or obtaining trademark certificates, and only seeking legal advice when a problem arises.
The Report raised concerns that risks to consumers could be significant. The Society is looking into regulating online legal information and actively raising awareness among members of the public about the value of legal advice. It expressed the importance that regulatory touch should continue to be ‘light but judicious, serve the interests of the public, and foster innovation.’
This is likely to directly impact a range of prominent ‘NewLaw’ firms which specialise, for example, in the provision of online legal documents.
Community needs and funding
According to the Report, the current pattern of legal service usage forms the shape of a ‘U’ where the highest users are at either end of the financial spectrum – from the very vulnerable who come from lower socio-economic backgrounds to the very wealthy who come from high socio-economic groups.
Within this curve of legal service usage exists a ‘missing middle’. Individuals from middle-income backgrounds or small to medium-sized businesses and organisations, who are not eligible for legal aid and who cannot afford expensive legal representation, are left with unmet legal needs. These people often experience legal issues but rarely seek legal assistance.
According to the Report:
this is a particularly dynamic area of unmet need, one which is beginning to be researched in more detail.”
Draft guidance for lawyers as entrepreneurs and business people
The Report recommends the development of draft guidance for lawyers to operate as entrepreneurs and to develop new ways of doing business.
Despite the demand for accessible and affordable legal information and services from large and influential sections of the community, surprisingly, the legal industry is among the last dinosaurs still dragging its feet behind the likes of the health, travel and financial industries. This lack of widespread uptake in innovation and new technology in the face of a rapidly-changing legal landscape is even more pressing, especially given the potential for technology to improve the lives of clients as well as lawyers.
The Report does not deal with the potential for the increased use of technology and innovation to significantly enhance the lives of the broader community which, in our view, should be a key focus of legal services.
Interestingly, the recommendations overlook the need to improve community awareness and understanding of the law and legal issues from a preventative law standpoint.
As the Report establishes, many early stage legal issues faced by young Australians and middle-income earners either go unrecognised or untreated. For this ‘missing middle’ cohort, self-education and personal empowerment can be achieved through greater use of reliable online legal information and resources available through digitised government and other resources.
Indeed, there is much scope for public interest publications such as BucketOrange Magazine to play a significant educative role in lifting community awareness of the law generally. BucketOrange Magazine is not only successfully reaching out to this middle cohort but also providing a facilitative channel bridging the legal knowledge gap through educating the public about the law, the value of legal information, and the importance of seeking timely professional legal advice.
In the next 3-5 years, it will be vital for the industry to adapt, pivot and change direction in response to these identified factors and those set out in the FLIP Report.
What are your impressions of the findings and recommendations outlined in the FLIP Report? Let us know in the comments!
Read the full Future of Law and Innovation in the Profession Report (FLIP) here.