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Alumni Voices: the legal industry needs to digitise or be left behind

It’s easy to forget how dramatically fundamental processes in our lives have changed. Banks let you open and run an account on your phone and verify your identity with a video. AI-augmented doctors can diagnose and prescribe on mobile. A digital broker can give you a legally watertight 30-year mortgage through a chatbot.

But if that mortgage accompanies a house purchase, the conveyancing itself will barely be digital at all. Lawyers will send you a barely legible PDF of a scanned document in three columns, in a tiny font, that you’ll print, sign with a pen, scan and send back. In London, bike couriers still ride around with the fate of merger deals resting on paper documents in their bags. Some courts are still run on solitary paper diaries. Legal process, and the legal industry in general, resists change.

At the top end of the market, the biggest commercial law firms embrace innovation, experimenting with AI and other new technologies. But if you walk into the average law practice, or in-house legal team, mostly they’re structured, run and paid in pretty much the same way they were 20 years ago. The good news is that consumers no longer have to accept it. People deserve a better experience with the legal industry - and there are tech companies who’ll break the rules to make it happen.

DoNotPay is a chatbot that uses AI to generate documents people need to challenge parking tickets and fines. Instead of this being celebrated, its creator, Joshua Browder, was subject to legal challenges of his own, because lawyers believe the app’s activity strayed into ‘protected activities’, exclusive to qualified lawyers. The obvious question is that if your only value is in doing manually what an app can do in seconds, how much value are you really adding - and do you deserve to be protected?

As with any conservative industry that’s slow to adapt, London’s entrepreneurs are coming to change it all. For consumers, Farewill is ‘disrupting death’ by letting people self-serve wills online, and CrowdJustice lets citizens band together to support court cases that would ordinarily be too expensive - notably the recent challenge to the prorogation of Parliament that triumphed in the Supreme Court. For businesses, AI and machine learning are coming to reinvent manual processes like contract management and document review.

Most tellingly, the world’s most powerful venture capital funds are backing them. Investment in legal tech reached $1.3bn up to September in 2019 - in 2018, that figure was $1bn, and in 2017, just $233m. Financiers have realised that the consumers of legal services (basically every person and every business on the planet) deserve better - and will vote with their feet to make it happen. Legal professionals needs to adapt to technology sooner rather than later - or see themselves sidelined.

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Tom Bangay

Tom Bangay

Contributor to Alumni Blog

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