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2021 is a decisive year for legal digital transformation

Last updated on
September 24, 2021

The coronavirus pandemic and subsequent lockdowns have forever altered the ways that we work. 2020 sped up digital transformation at an unprecedented pace, with the mass move to remote work forcing thousands of businesses to embrace digital transformation and invest in remote tech. But while 2020 set the wheels in motion, 2021 is expected to become the real year of digital delivery.

All of this comes as a particular shock to the system for much of the legal sector, which has until now managed to elude radical technological change. While it shouldn’t take a global epidemic to modernize the industry, 2021 will undeniably be a decisive year for legal digital transformation. So what pressures, competitor trends and client expectations can firms expect?

Long-standing resistance to change

Digital transformation has never taken off in the legal world in the same way as it has in other sectors. While there certainly are digital trail blazers, the widespread perception of lawyers as sceptical digital laggards isn’t entirely unwarranted. “We’re a traditional lot and cultural change is exceptionally difficult,” says Robert Shooter, head of technology at London law firm Fieldfisher. “People like doing things the way they’ve been doing them for generations.”

It’s true that people often fear what they don’t understand – and when a profession has been as linear as law has, this applies even more keenly. Until very recently, legal teams were too focused on the risks of digital change rather than the rewards: adapting new technology and new processes means having to adapt to new ways of thinking; it also means developing new sets of skills – and when legal professionals have worked for years to get where they are today, such rapid change within their professions understandably may not seem attractive.

Plus, there’s the ever-present fear that tech advancements may render certain types of jobs obsolete – or at least alter them to the point where they’re no longer recognizable or desirable. So perhaps the fact that the legal sector has been so slow to adapt to – and exploit – digital transformation is reasonable.

Forced legal digital transformation

Since the pandemic hit, the legal system has been forced to change. Its traditional models, self-regulation and culture can no longer prevent it from moving with the times, and online courts and remote workforces are just two reasons why change absolutely has to come. The pandemic served to expose pre-existing problems within the legal sector – those “labor-intensive, lawyer-centric, insular, monolithic models of legal education”. But now the opportunities to do better are staring us in the face, resisting change seems more than futile: it’s self-sabotaging. So what changes can we expect to see over the next year?

Robotic processes automation is the big one – and according to Forbes, one of the best examples of legal automation is contract management technology. Research by IACCM found that the pandemic has led to nearly “80% of organizations...suffering moderate to severe impacts to their contracts and trading relationships.” Legal automation technology comes in the form of contract lifecycle management (CLM) systems, which allow lawyers to help clients quicker and more efficiently.

By providing access to contracts and documents whenever needed, CLM systems also enable legal professionals to develop services to new markets. CLM systems feature centralized smart repositories and AI analytics, and make the process of signing, sending, editing, and redlining important legal documents much more efficient. The benefits of this are huge: a recent survey of 340 corporate in-house legal departments found that 33% of leaders were concerned about the speed of legal work – and after legal automation implementation, over a quarter of companies reported speed improvements of more than 50% – and in some cases, up to 90%.

Legal digital transformation enables meaningful change

Encouragingly, it seems the tide is turning in terms of willingness to embrace legal digital transformation, and research by Gartner has found that 73% of executives are now either very open or extremely open to legal automation investment. Interestingly, Mark Cohen, the CEO of Legal Mosaic and one of the most respected names in the legal industry has stated that digital transformation isn’t really about technology; rather, it’s “about customers, by finding new ways of gaining access and ensuring customer satisfaction.” Technology is simply the tool that enables this to happen.

Studies from McKinsey & Co. show that organizations that undergo digital transformation are “23 times more likely to acquire customers, 6 percent more likely to retain customers, and 19 times more likely to be profitable”. But still, the effects of digital transformation run much deeper than this: they also have an effect on diversity, collaboration, and a company’s capability to culturally adapt. During a time when ethics and inclusivity are a strong focus of corporate social responsibility, law companies must adapt to this type of digital transformation – or risk being marginalized.

Ultimately, while some firms and leaders are still dragging their heels when it comes to implementing legal digital transformation, it’s also clear that they recognize that in 2021 change can’t be avoided. Digital-first clients now expect a certain level of digital maturity from their legal service providers – and lack of uptake will only serve to age legal firms and create a deepening disconnect among those they aim to serve. If law firms don’t change, their clients will simply go elsewhere.

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