Independent research into innovation in the legal sector carried out on behalf of the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has revealed that there is insufficient advancement for firms working with individuals and small businesses.
The research carried out on behalf of the SRA by the University of Oxford found that, while the majority of law firms were making increasing use of day-to-day technology, the development of bespoke legal technology was largely focused on advances designed to benefit larger corporate clients. Although the use of some existing technology had soared over the last 18 months, with 87% of firms now using video conferencing to meet clients and two-thirds (66%) storing data in the cloud, nevertheless firms working with individuals and small businesses had experienced barriers to accessing more advanced technological solutions such as affordability, a lack of in-house technology skills, and uncertainty over the business benefits.
The vast majority of firms (90%), regardless of size or sector, reported that changes made to help them deliver services during the Covid pandemic were now here to stay. However, use of technology was found to be highest among younger firms, those operating through alternative business structures and those working in areas where technology was already established, such as conveyancing. When it came to more advanced technology – such as automated documents, interactive websites and artificial intelligence – only slightly over a third (37%) of law firms said they were currently using these.
The research also highlighted that of the legal job advertised over the past six years, less than 2% of those for solicitors required lawtech skill. This, combined with the fact that three times as many roles are advertised each year in the unregulated sector, seems to be contributing to a widening lawtech skills gap between regulated and non-regulated providers.
Speaking about the research, Anna Bradley, Chair of the SRA, said:
‘Supporting innovation and the adoption of legal technology is a key priority, as we set out in our Corporate Strategy. It can help increase access to justice for the public and small businesses, as well as supporting firms to be more efficient, benefitting everyone and the economy as a whole.
‘These findings drive home the fact that when we talk about technology, we need to remember just how broad that term is and how far there is for some to travel. This is not just about artificial intelligence, virtual reality or future technologies. Some of the innovation which has the greatest potential to improve access to justice at pace is already available. Such technology can be applied widely and be used on a day-to-day basis to benefit both consumers and law firms. The challenge now is how we all work together to enable this to happen.’
Mari Sako, Professor of Management Studies at the University of Oxford and project leader for this research,added:
‘Technology and innovation have already changed, and will continue to change, the face of the legal services sector. Our research provides robust evidence of this.
‘But we also found that benefits from legal technology are not evenly distributed across different market segments. Regulators, including the SRA, collaborating with other stakeholders could play a major role, not only to lower regulatory uncertainty but also to level the playing field across the market segments.’
Based on their report, researchers identified three key areas to be addressed in order to allow for greater development of innovation and technology in legal services to take place. These were:
- Greater support and co-ordination among government, regulators and tech developers – especially in terms of encouraging innovation and identifying funding paths
- Increasing public and law firm trust in new approaches and technologies
- Increasing the technological and innovation skills and knowledge bases within the legal sector.
Further details ab out the research, including podcasts from the University of Oxford, can be found on the SRA website.