Theresa Yurkewich Hoffman, Senior Policy and Innovation Advisor at the City of London Corporation, gives her thoughts on legal-tech gap, the 'tech gap', and what's being done to address it.

The legal sector has often been described as lagging behind the rest of the services in its adoption of new technologies and innovations. However, in recent years a surge of professional services platforms targeted towards lawyers – combined with a newfound willingness to adapt – has closed the ‘tech gap’ significantly.

We reached out to Theresa Yurkewich Hoffmann, Senior Policy and Innovation Advisor at the City of London Corporation, to find out more about the developments taking place in the legal sector, and if London’s firms have managed to close the ‘tech gap’.

Q: What are the areas that we are seeing tech development in?

A: Most recently we have seen development and the adoption of virtual collaboration platforms, as well as document review and contract tools. We have also seen an increased focus on the interoperability between technology, such as integration of e-signature tools or knowledge management platforms.

Legal professionals and their clients are looking for more user-friendly ways of accessing tech without having to flip between several applications or dashboards. I think anything that focuses on this interoperability will be essential for those looking to scale their product.

Q: What areas still require the most development?

A: There is still a lot to be discovered in terms of how we use technology in legal services. This includes how we compile and analyse data, the full functionalities of cloud, and better uses of common tools already in operation. I think once the sector becomes more comfortable with these tools, we will see systemic changes in business models and client user journeys.

Q: What improvements do you believe the legal sector could benefit from?

A: I would like to see current innovation work be more joined-up between organisations, firms (from small to global), and public service, so that we are addressing challenges together and moving forward at the same pace. This is important in ensuring that service quality as a whole remains high and that we are not duplicating or fragmenting our efforts.

I also think more clarity in policy and procedures, particularly cloud technology and procurement, would benefit the sector – both from the perspective of organisations looking to onboard technology, and for technology firms creating a product. The Lawtech Sounding Board is an example of how the City of London Corporation is trying to address these common challenges. By bringing together a cross-sector group of individuals, we help create a link between law firms and tech companies, so that we can address common challenges and ensure products are problem-led.

Q: What is the sector’s mood regarding digital transformation?

A: I think the sector is increasingly positive about digital transformation. New roles are being created to incorporate technology into legal practice and take advantage of new possibilities with data, automation, and innovation more broadly. We are seeing firm-led projects at all levels; small, mid-sized and global firms are each using digitalisation to deliver a better client experience.

We are also seeing new legal services businesses being created, which offer virtual client services or an alternative approach to product delivery. Whether it is corporate law, disputes, or family law, the entire ecosystem is working together to think about the possibilities and harness them. As we become more knowledgeable about technology and understand its uses and limitations, legal culture will continue to shift towards digital transformation as something that is beneficial for business.

Q: Looking forward into the next few decades, what in your eyes are the long-term consequences of digitalising the legal world?

A: The City of London Corporation published a report earlier this year that included our vision for legal services, titled London Recharged. The report was drafted in consultation with several technology and legal organisations, suggesting practical recommendations and calling on project partners to act. Our legal services ecosystem is one of the most innovative, incorporating technology to reduce fees and improve efficiency, and discovering new ways of doing things that give clients added value. In London Recharged, our vision is that increased digitalisation will make UK legal services increasingly accessible and competitive worldwide. Not only will we see the UK retain its status as the leading hub for dispute resolution, but we will increasingly see our talent and expertise fully utilized by international clients around the globe in contracts, strategy, compliance, etc.

Another positive consequence I am hoping to see, is the shift from legal services as a product, to the ‘legal system as a service’. I hope digitalisation will make justice more accessible to the individual and corporate client. Research suggests that SMEs rarely seek legal advice for legal problems, and this can have a negative impact on their business down the line - whether it is a dispute, or a fine that could have been avoided. The same goes for individuals who often approach family and friends due to fear of the legal profession or high costs. By incorporating digitalisation, I would like to see simplified legal services that solve a client’s problem holistically, rather than in bits and pieces, and quality that is not jeopardized by affordability.

A key part of this will be digitalising court systems, as well as creating more accessible physical spaces, ensuring easier access to information, and securing quicker resolution times. At the same time, the ethics of this innovation must be continually evaluated, to ensure safety of personal data, open and accountable justice, and equal access and opportunity. We also need to consider user-centricity at the heart of this work, ensuring the new systems we create are adaptable. There are some very good examples of this already underway around the world, but there is still a lot of work to do.

Q: Do you expect technology to reduce the need for administrative roles such as clerks?

I don’t think it will completely reduce the need, but it may change the duties of their role. I think we will see an increased use of chatbots or scheduling tools that can replace some administrative functions, but AI is far off from being a complete alternative. The new duties of a clerk might include managing these tools, inputting data, or monitoring dashboard analytics. There will also always be a need for a human option for communication, particularly for individuals who might not be able to access or use digital tools.

Q: Will London firms continue to keep abreast of tech updates, or will they fall back into old habits?

Yes, they will definitely stay abreast. London has a longstanding history of being a hub for innovation, both in terms of developing technology and adoption into practice. We have seen a massive amount of change and cultural shift towards digital legal services delivery, with Covid and new ways of working acting as a further catalyst. I think now that firms see the benefit of technology in improving resilience of their practice as well as increasing efficiencies and potentially better staff well-being, this will support further investment in digital infrastructure.

Recently the City Corporation piloted a legal innovation programme, Innovation Ambassadors, which brought together 55 participants from across the legal ecosystem but in many different roles. Throughout the four-week programme, the atmosphere was buzzing as teams worked to create digital solutions for common challenges. There was a lot of eagerness for improved collaboration through tech, and I hope each participant has taken this knowledge and drive back to their organisations and is finding unique ways of incorporating it into practice. We published a report from this programme, and an in depth look at the teams’ challenges and solutions, here.