In March this year, The Law Society of New South Wales launched its Future of Law and Innovation in the Profession (‘FLIP’) Report. The FLIP Report builds upon themes explored in the Law Institute of Victoria’s 2015 analysis of innovation and disruption in the legal profession. The FLIP report is based on written submissions, interviews and the testimony of 103 witnesses from the profession, who provided their insights and experiences of innovation in the law. It also draws upon academic commentary by influential thinkers including Richard Susskind.
The FLIP Report provides much-needed guidance on the changes taking place in the legal profession. It is a reassuring read for young lawyers who fear that their jobs may be replaced by automation and artificial intelligence. It gives recommendations to help lawyers remain relevant by embracing new ways of providing legal services. It also provides practical examples of improvements to the legal services industry that increase access to justice.
The future of lawyering and the legal profession is one of the ACJI’s focus areas. We welcome the FLIP Report and its contributions to the conversation about innovation and change in the legal profession.
Highlights of the FLIP Report
1. The middle class is missing out on legal services
The FLIP report engaged with the phenomenon of the ‘missing middle’ – that is, whereas the wealthy can afford to hire lawyers and the poor may be eligible for pro-bono services, middle-income individuals and small to medium organisations may be unable to access legal services through these pathways. This results in a ‘U’ shaped distribution of access to legal services across society.
The underserviced ‘missing middle’ provides an opportunity for new businesses to fill the gap in the market. This could improve access to justice for the middle class, and create more jobs for the oversupply of law graduates. However, in order to capture this market, law firms must adapt their business model to be more affordable and user-friendly.
2. Consumers want low-cost, user-friendly legal services
Consumer demand is pressuring legal services to move towards a more client-focused approach. The Report found that in-house, corporate lawyers are leading this change through their use of technology, optimising work processes and reducing costs. Their user-friendly approach could improve access to justice for other users of the legal system. For example, applying design thinking to the communication of legal information can help people to find solutions to their legal issues. User-friendly legal websites make legal information accessible and comprehensible to the masses. Consumers expect the legal industry to keep up with the implementation of technology taking place throughout other professions to improve efficiency and accessibility.
Another way that lawyers are making their services more client-focused is by providing predictable pricing arrangements such as fixed fees. This is a significant change to the time-based billing that was once entrenched across the legal profession. Offering fixed fees allows clients to pay for the value they receive from their lawyer’s work, rather than for the amount of time spent on their file. The Report suggests that time-based billing is antithetical to value-production because it rewards inefficiency. The movement towards fixed fees confirms that law firms are able to discard traditional practices in favour of a more client-focused approach.
3. Legal tech improves access to justice
The FLIP report emphasises the important role of technology in improving access to justice. In particular, the report noted the increasing interest of courts and governments in Online Dispute Resolution (ODR). ACJI is delighted to be offering Australia’s first unit dedicated to ODR this year.
Technology can also be used by law firms to provide legal services in a more flexible and instantaneous way. Millennials are increasingly expecting services to be delivered through websites and phone applications such as Uber and Airbnb. Legal services must also adapt to this online model. The Report notes that the legal profession is addressing this through the rise of virtual firms and freelance lawyers. These services allow legal professionals to offer advice outside of traditional office hours through platforms such as Skype. This has benefits for the legal practitioner, including greater flexibility and remote working arrangements. However, it also benefits the client by creating a greater array of options to those seeking legal services, and thus making legal services more accessible.
4. Law students must broaden their skills
In light of the changes taking place in the legal profession, the Report acknowledges that law schools must ensure that the next generation of lawyers is equipped for this new environment. Lawyers of the future will need a broad skillset of both legal and non-legal skills, including competencies in technology, business and project management.
The report recommends that universities prepare their students by introducing multi-disciplinary courses such as coding and web development. Students would also benefit from innovative extracurricular activities such as legal hackathons. However, universities must ensure that technology is effectively integrated into the curriculum rather than a simplistic ‘add tech and stir’ approach.
The ACJI supports innovative education through its academic program and also through its support of extracurricular activities. ACJI recently worked with Monash GENERATOR to organise an access to justice hackathon.
The FLIP Report did not provide an in-depth discussion of the movement from the traditional adversarial approach towards non-adversarial models in the justice system. Although non-adversarial dispute resolution processes are often referred to as ‘alternative’ they are now increasingly mainstream. The increasing popularity of non-adversarial dispute resolution can be explained by its benefits for clients, including lower costs and increased efficiency compared to litigation. Thus, it will be important for future lawyers to have a thorough understanding of non-adversarial justice.
The FLIP Report confirms that the legal industry is lagging behind other sectors in its adoption of technology and innovation. However, it also makes clear that these changes are necessary for improving access to justice and for ensuring that the legal profession remains relevant to society’s needs in the future.