Reinvent Law London 2013

How long does it take for an event to become a fixture in the landscape? The London marathon managed to do it following its first running in 1981 and has not looked back since. Another event, not quite on the same scale perhaps, looks set to make a similar impact in the legal arena. Last month saw the second Reinvent Law Conference at Centrepoint in London. Last year it was called LawTechCamp 2012, but otherwise the same format was used and the only other change was sponsorship by LexisNexis. It became so popular during the afternoon that #reinventlaw started trending on Twitter.

Reinvent Law London 2013 is a joint venture between Michigan State University and the University of Westminster Law School, although Reinvent Law is most definitely American in origin. On the Reinvent Law Laboratory website you will find the following statement which sets out what they are all about;

Kodak and Instagram are the same thing: shared personal snapshots. But technology, design, and delivery made Instagram a success and left Kodak a dinosaur. We believe that tech + design + delivery holds the same promise for law.

At ReInvent LawTM, we imagine a world where quality legal services are affordable, accessible, and widely-adopted. We actively pursue innovation in the delivery of legal services, and reform to legal education among other endeavours.

The provision of legal services is under pressure in the UK like perhaps at no other time, through a combination of the recession, increased competition from new entrants to the market, the reduction of eligibility for legal aid and reforms to the civil justice system. The SRA is said to be highly concerned about the number of firms that might require their intervention and many lawyers are being made redundant; the current business model for law firms may be in jeopardy. Consequently, the time is ripe for a discussion on how to achieve the goals Reinvent Law set itself but, as many speakers said during the day “Don’t just talk, do!” What, or how “to do” was the theme of the day; perhaps not as well answered was why law firms don’t “do”. Even more worryingly do they even perceive a need to modernize using technology?

Reinvent Law has been around for some time in Michigan and the event necessarily had an American flavour. George Bernard Shaw may have said that the Americans and British are one nation divided by the same language and that also holds true for legal practice: the Americans are fascinated by Alternative Business Structures and external investment but definitely do not intend to allow it to happen to them. They are, no doubt, considering their opportunities here instead! Deregulation, however, was not the main theme throughout the day, rather the focus was on technology and simply doing things differently.

Craig Holt of Quality Solicitors opened the event with a focus on how lawyers need to be more transparent on costs, more accessible to clients and technology can help achieve those goals. Their tie in with Legal Zoom gives some indication of how they see the market developing – online delivery of basic documents with real world assistance provided by the network of Quality Solicitors law firms on the High Street.

After Holt’s presentation, the agenda switched to the quick-fire, ten minute long “Ignite” sessions on various aspects of the future of legal practice, given by students of the law departments as well as by consultants and academics. There may even have been one or two practicing lawyers. Ignite sessions lasted for no longer than 10 minutes and covered topics such as “Computer aided diagnosis and advice: the future of access to justice” and “Technology can transform the law but only if done right.” The focus was literally on imagining the future of law, literally illustrated by one speaker using interpretive dance to show how we will use mobile phone apps to get legal advice on the spot in the future. I suspect the full nuance of the message was lost in presenting in that fashion but it certainly kept my attention for the full ten minutes and was a welcome relief from the tempo of the other monologues. A similarly radical message was given by another delegate who urged lawyers to communicate with their clients using metaphors and images – mainly fish swimming in the sea avoiding sharks as I recall. Although I may possibly have misunderstood what she was saying it demonstrates how people assimilate information in different ways. Metaphors and images may not work for me in receiving legal information, but it may for your clients.

Another presentation, by blogger Alice de Sturler, was of particular interest to me. She blogs on unsolved murder cases (“cold-cases”) and related how her blog had been instrumental in Police in the US gathering new evidence to investigate afresh and secure convictions in some decades old murders. What de Sturler’s use of blogging shows is that there can be real value to social media and that it is possible to justify blogging by getting away from the tired old discussions about ROI. In her case, using her blog to highlight these unsolved cases, bring new evidence to the fore and help secure justice for the victims and their families.

The final session was given by Professor Richard Susskind, who spoke for 40 minutes on his experience of using technology to provide legal advice. Susskind related how he and a colleague had collaborated in the 1980s to develop a DOS-based piece of software that could calculate the relevant limitation date under the Latent Damage Act 1986. It asked the user lots of questions and then computed the answer through using sheer brute processing power. It made me think that although it looked old-fashioned because of the use of DOS, it was remarkably modern in its approach. Susskind made the point that that type of system has hardly developed at all over the intervening 25 years. Although it was designed to save lawyers’ time because of hourly billing those types of system were not in the interest of law firms. It never took off. The current economic challenges posed to law firms ought to change that mindset.

Memorably, Susskind said there were four classic responses to the introduction of technology. The first is to deride the idea as nonsense, the second is to say it is interesting but impractical, the third that it is unimportant and, by stage four, the respondent claims to have known it was the right idea all along. How often do you come across that type of response when talking about the use of social media in the workplace?

It was a very interesting afternoon with some thought-provoking ideas.. Judging by delegates’ reactions at the reception after the show, most people enjoyed it and are looking forward to next year’s event. With high-level sponsorship from LexisNexis its future looks assured. Refreshingly the emphasis was not on product placement or advertising; there was no exhibition hall crammed with suppliers desperate to demonstrate their wares. I did not walk away at the end with a logo-embossed briefcase stuffed full of flyers, brochures, branded pens and the other useless paraphernalia that one tends to acquire at trade shows (this was not a trade show of course) and it was all the better for it. Instead I came away thinking, like many others I suspect, that the law firms that survive and prosper will be the ones that successfully embrace technology.

Michael Scutt is a solicitor at Excello Law Ltd specialising in employment law. He is particularly interested in social media usage in the workplace. He also writes the Jobsworth and There May be Trouble Ahead blogs.

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