Thursday, 29 November 2012

Why Richard Susskind should choose your EuroMillions lottery numbers

Way back in 2000, Professor Richard Susskind made a series of predictions about how the market for legal services might evolve, driven by the innovative use of IT. And, over the past few weeks, I’ve noticed that several of his predictions are showing signs of coming true - at least in the UK. If I ever get the chance to speak to Professor Susskind in person, I’ll ask him to pick my EuroMillions lottery numbers for 2024. He might not help me pick the jackpot. But I’ll happily settle for four matches and a lucky star.
In his 2000 book, Transforming the Law, Professor Susskind said (on page 29): “By 2015, the main way in which legal service is delivered across the world will be through access to online legal service as opposed to consultation with human lawyers. I still stick to that prediction.” At page 55, he added: “While the larger firms have the investment capability to develop all manner of systems of their own, I anticipate all manner of joint ventures, collaborations, and entrepreneurial exploits by the hungrier, smaller, and sometimes less profitable firms.” And, finally, on page 67, he said: “My prediction is that the great legal businesses of the future will…maintain a blend of online service and traditional service supported by physical meetings with clients.”
Last night, I attended the launch of Rocket Lawyer UK. Rocket Lawyer is a Google-backed combination of automated, online, self-service legal documents, supported by a panel of small and mid-sized law firms. This arrangement pretty much describes Susskind’s vision.
Weirdly, the launch of Rocket Lawyer was the second time in a month that I’d come across a convergence of online legal service providers and smallish, independent law firms. On 9 November, wearing my freelance copywriter’s hat, I attended the LawNet annual conference in Kenilworth, to produce a report of the event.
One of the advertisers at the event was Evident – Simplify the Law™. Evident provides self-service document assembly software to law firms, for those firms to use on a “white label” basis. In reality, the type of firms who attended the LawNet conference probably wouldn’t have the resources to build such software themselves. But Evident’s business model assumes such firms want to offer online legal services to their own clients, and would be willing to partner with Evident to make that happen.
And, of course, in September 2012, Quality Solicitors announced its partnership with the soon-to be launched UK operation of LegalZoom. “The partnership”, the announcement stated, “will see a wide range of legal products and services offered online, combining LegalZoom’s technology with Quality Solicitors’ expert solicitors, who will offer local support and advice from over 400 locations across the UK.”
I can only imagine the look of quiet satisfaction on Richard Susskind’s face when he heard that news.
In reality, it’s unlikely that, by 2015, most clients will use online providers for their legal needs – even in a dynamic legal market such as the UK. But one thing is for sure: we certainly seem to be moving in that direction. What’s more, it seems to be the smaller law firms who are be driving this trend, working in collaboration with legal IT software providers.
In all honesty, this is not a development I’d seen coming, even having read Professor Susskind’s book when it was first published. Instead, I’d pinned my hope on Tesco or the RAC as the main driver of legal service innovation. But I guess that’s because my name is Richard Parnham – and not Richard Susskind.
So, anyway, Professor Susskind, about that 2024 EuroMillions lottery draw….

Saturday, 30 June 2012

A tale of two conferences

I attended two conferences on innovation in the legal sector last week. One, hosted by Fox Williams, discussed a survey on the future uses of ABSs, as predicted by 100 commercial law firms. The second, LawTech Camp London 2012, focused on technology as drivers of innovation in the legal market. Geographically, the two events took place within three miles of each other. In terms of mind-sets, with one or two notable exceptions, they were a million miles apart.

Large tranches of the Fox Williams report were shot through with conservatism. The survey revealed how there was little interest in raising funds for a stock market listing by the survey’s participants, and most felt no need to convert to an ABS in order to create a recognised brand identity. Law firm respondents were particularly hostile – or at least apathetic - to forming any kind of “one stop shop”, be that with accountants, insurers, other professions or claims management companies. Telling, the largest barriers to ABS conversion were felt to be “loss of control” (62%) and resistance from partners (51%). Some 50% of survey participants said they had not changed their firm’s management strategy as a result of the Legal Services Act.

By contrast, the LawTech event involved keynote speeches by those who intended to disrupt the UK legal market. Ajaz Ahmed from Legal 365 kicked off his presentation with the self-evident truth that most people dislike lawyers. And, quoting Henry Ford’s apocryphal approach to product development, he essentially told the audience he aims to give clients what they need, and not necessarily what they ask for. Richard Cohen from Epoq, gave a live demonstration of how his company’s document assembly-led system could build, review and deliver a couple’s joint will from a standing start in 45 minutes, at a price point that it could be given away for free as part of a wider bundle of services.

Even the conservative world of local government law was embracing change. Geoff Wild, Director of Governance & Law at Kent County Council, explained how he had turned his legal function from a cost centre into a profit-making organisation, by selling specialist legal services to hundreds of organisations. And, given that overall theme in many presentations was that innovators aim to deliver legal services to the (untapped) “latent legal market”, it was perhaps fitting that Richard Susskind was also a keynote speaker.

For me, one of the most surprising aspects of the LawTech event was the amount of effort that was being put into turning dispute resolution into a commodity product, with little or no lawyer involvement. For example, Tom McGinn, Director of Business Development, VirtualCourthouse discussed the rise of electronic dispute resolution services such as CyberSettle and Mondria.

At the top end of the value chain, Josh Blackman, assistant professor at South Texas Law, recalled how FantasySCOTUS was using crowdsourcing to predict US Supreme Court judgments. At a more granular level, the Harlan Institute and others, including Thomson Reuters, were effectively transforming legal rulings into countless data points, turning the “qualitative into the quantitative”. By capturing data on legal arguments, judges’ decision histories, lawyers’ success ratios and numerous other factors, the end result of this effort was clear: ultimately, technology will allow client to explain their situation to a computer interface, which will tell them whether, based on law and precedent, it would be likely that they would win a legal dispute. Think the iPhone’s Siri, but offering legal advice.

If this sounds like fantasy, several speakers pointed out that IBM’s super-computer, Watson, had recently beaten two past champions of US game-show Jeopardy in a special edition of the show. If computers can be more effective at answering quiz show questions than expert humans, then why can't they be better than lawyers at offering legal advice? And, to reinforce just how standard expert knowledge systems were in other industries, Daniel Katz, assistant professor of Law at the Michigan State University College of Law explained how farmers had been using “almanacs” for years to help them decide when to plant their crops, even though weather patterns are inherently unpredictable. Farmers didn’t expect their almanacs to predict what the weather would be on a particular day, he said. All they needed was a reasonably accurate guide to probability, based on past events, which would help them make informed decisions. Sound familiar?

A final point of comparison between the Fox Williams and LawTech events were their respective takeaways. At the Fox Williams meeting, I was given a glossy, paper-based summary of the report’s findings, and a collection of marketing literature. At the LawTech event, I took away a twitter feed, a blog of speakers delivered in real time by @legalaware, a memorable YouTube video, delivered online by Miami-based legal academic, Michael Bossone – and a headful of new ideas.

And that just about sums up the difference between "innovation" by lawyers, and "innovation" by everyone else.

Friday, 25 May 2012

LETR – don’t waste time suggesting quality standards for unregulated legal advice

Even before the Co-op’s recent announcement that it intends to create 3,000 new jobs in the legal sector, I did wonder whether the Legal Education and Training Review (LETR) work would be overtaken by events. In taking an evidence-based approach of its review of legal education and training, the review is clearly taking a laudable approach to the issue of lawyer standards. But its fundamental problem is this: in England and Wales, like in many other countries, a large percentage of legal “work” is not reserved for solicitors or barristers alone.

In practical terms, this means the LETR can make whatever recommendations it likes to improve legal education and training. But, if the LETR encourages frontline legal regulators to impose new training burdens on their members, the consequences will be eminently predictable. Individual practitioners who advise on unregulated legal matters can simply abandon their membership of their professional body, and carry on exactly as before. In such circumstances, the LETR’s recommendations would have no impact.

So, I have a suggestion for the LETR, which may make their recommendations more likely to have a lasting impact on the legal market: forget about trying to set standards for unreserved legal activities. Rightly or wrongly, parliament, the LSB and clients have already decided that professional accreditation is not needed by advisers who deal with such matters. Instead, focus solely on addressing standards concerns in those areas of the legal market which are reserved for regulated lawyers – and practitioners cannot avoid complying with.

If the LETR follows this narrow approach, then what skills are required from the undergraduate law degree, the GLD, LPC, and the BPTC suddenly becomes much clearer: in future, the focus of both academic and vocational training for solicitors or barristers should be explicitly tailored to give students the skills they need to advise on or more reserved areas of law – even if other topics are also taught.

For students who followed such courses, the ultimate prize for demonstrating their expert knowledge would be a protected professional title, be it solicitor or barrister. And, unlike the more narrowly focused legal professions, such as licenced conveyancers, students who became solicitor or barristers via this route could then have their pick of which reserved activities they could specialise in, so long as they had previously passed the relevant exams. The one requirement for this ongoing flexibility would be that these regulated professions should undertake regular – and meaningful – reaccreditation, either as they switch between reserved specialisms, or as they continued to offer existing ones.

Of course, building a professional title purely around those advisors who offered reserved activities would mean that many legal advisors would never be entitled to call themselves solicitors or barristers. But, in an era when MDPs are now permitted, one has to ask – is this really a problem? After all, in MDP-friendly Germany, the number of generalist “lawyers” is relevantly small – possibly because other, more narrowly-focused “legal” professions, also do “law work”, but still work in partnership with their more generalist lawyer counterparts.

Here in the UK, it’s very easy to imagine a “law firm” where the technical competencies of its advisors are assured by a range of specialist bodies – or none at all - depending on whether or not they offer reserved legal advice. For conveyancing matters, for example, advisors could choose between being quality assured by a (slimmed down) solicitors-led regulator, or via the Council for Licensed Conveyancers. Lawyers who wished to move into unregulated areas may wish to drop out of the regulatory framework altogether. Alternatively, they could demonstrate their ongoing competence via membership of a relevant trade association, professional institute, government accreditation scheme, or by taking industry-specific exams. If one looks hard enough, there is no shortage of both statutory and non-statutory organisations capable of testing legal advisors’ technical skills, many at a highly advanced level.

No-one likes to lose control of quality control standards, especially lawyers. After all, it took years for the Law Society to surrender operational control of solicitors’ vocational training – but standards did not plummet when new providers entered the market. However, the simple fact is that, even before “Tesco law” takes full effect, mainstream legal regulators already have no control over the quality of vast number of unregulated legal advisors. And, by relying on the widely discredited CPD system as a tool for maintaining ongoing competence, it’s even doubtful whether the mainstream English and Welsh legal professions currently regulate the quality standards of their own membership to any meaningful degree.

The LETR review process is an ideal time to the profession, collectively, to admit these facts. Once it does so, then it stands a chance of devising a quality system that bears some resemblance to the way legal advice is actually delivered in this country.