Legal Tech in a Post-COVID-19 World
The COVID-19 pandemic served as a catalyst for the transformation from in-person and physical to digital in all industries. This change is not likely to disappear as it has only exacerbated an ongoing cross-industry trend. During a quarterly earnings call last year, CEO of Microsoftm, Satya Nadella commented that "we’ve seen two years’ worth of digital transformation in two months". These changes have reached the legal industry, despite its historical reluctance to digitalise and the tedious process of developing and adopting legal tech.
Legal tech encompasses digital tools, softwares and technology used to improve the services provided by the legal industry to clients and regular citizens. It can respond to significant issues of the legal and justice system, such as the existing lawyer-centric rigid and parochial model that hinders efficiency. It also serves the increasingly complex, costly and slow justice system that reinforces the gap in access to justice in the world. However, the legal industry is well-known for its resistance to changes and to processes of digitalisation that have been underway in a large number of industries in the past decades. Yet, in the midst of the crisis, adaptation and flexibility seemed the only viable options.
The COVID-19 pandemic created disruptions in the legal sector when remote work and online courts were imposed. This prompted the widespread adoption of legal tech and exposed the competitive advantage enjoyed by firms that had already invested in such technologies. According to a Wolters Kluwer survey report, the most crucial aspects on which law firms have focused, and will continue to do so, are the investments in
"tools that support remote work and virtual collaboration". Among such technologies are "e-signature, e-meeting and e-voting management, document and contract workflow management, workflow management and process automation and analysis of regulatory and case law trends to predict results of claims".
This unprecedented development of legal tech highlights its necessity, efficiency and feasibility, and how easily legal professionals can familiarise themselves with digital solutions. However, there is a concern that some of these quick-implemented, digital solutions are not properly thought through, as they often address immediate problems rather than serve a long-term vision. Grégoire Miot, Head of New Markets Sales at Wolters Kluwer Legal & Regulatory, identified this and shared that:
"Digital is certainly the right answer to avoid another collapse for legal professionals but only if we take the time to analyse where we fell short with our processes. A successful project will always rely on a balanced combination of people, processes and solutions".
According to Miot, however, the pandemic will allow legal tech and software providers to distinguish essential from superficial or unfit functionalities to further guide research in this area.
The transition to legal tech can prove highly beneficial to different categories of people, including law firms’ clients, citizens and lawyers themselves. The implementation of the aforementioned solutions will offer lawyers the time and resources to be more efficient and thus more competitive as they can focus their attention on higher-value legal counseling. Additionally, it will facilitate communications with clients and remote collaboration with colleagues and third parties.
A complete overhaul of the antiquated legal system is now possible. The redesign would be executed with the customer in mind, rather than the lawyer, to provide better access to legal services and dispute resolutions. Nevertheless, the most impactful change would be the increased access to justice, as it is believed that there will be an acceleration of remote and virtual hearings and of online courts in general. Online court scan be defined stricto sensu as virtual hearings before judges but there is a more general definition put forward by Richard Susskind in his book "Online Courts and the Future of Justice":
"The idea here is that technology allows us to provide a service with much wider remit than the traditional court. The additional services include tools to help users to understand their rights, duties and options open to them, facilities that assist litigants to marshal their evidence and formulate their arguments and systems that advise on or bring about non-judicial settlement".
The implementation of such online courts would see significant progress to ending the expensive, slow and greatly inequitable court and justice system. In 2020, Utah and Arizona’s Supreme Courts successively tried to tackle the growing access to justice gap, exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis, by allowing new actors and new methods of providing legal help. This is part of the larger trend that seeks to increase the involvement of non-lawyers in all legal processes through the democratisation of digital tools including technology-assisted review, legal analytics and outcome prediction softwares, alternative dispute resolution and online resolution platforms or accessible legal documents templates.
While the post-COVID-19 legal world may incorporate legal tech in its proceedings to better serve its clients, it brings about a fair share of challenges. There still exists regulatory barriers impeding on non-lawyer access, inhibition of the improvement of machine learning models due to the difficulty in accessing data in public and private sectors and the strenuous process of designing artificial intelligence that is able to learn and unbiasedly interpret the law. The applicability of legal tech also raises inevitable questions of cybersecurity, data management and client confidentiality. To execute a legal technology that is beneficial to the majority and that addresses the deeply-flawed legal systems that restrict access to justice would require a large-scaled and user-centric approach.