Digital contract signing: less exciting than AI and robots, but making legal work easier © Getty Images/iStockphoto

From virtual reality collaborations to robots that write contracts, some of the technology being adopted by lawyers is surprising to many in an industry known for traditional ways of operating. Yet it is probably the fast growing use of more basic tools that is most transformative of lawyers’ lives during the pandemic.

Three trends have led to a seismic shift in digital lawyering that has been exacerbated by lockdowns, says Sergio Letelier, general counsel for M&A at Hewlett Packard Enterprise. They are: greater familiarity with the digital world; proliferation of big data; and big improvements in legal technology.

Lawyers love printing out legal documents to mark with red pen. But when forced to work from home, Mr Letelier says they were less likely to print reams of paper and to edit more in Word and Google docs instead.

“This seems like a tactical shift, but actually it’s fundamental,” he says. “It is the true beginning of the all-digital practice.”

Virtual document sharing, through applications such as Google docs, has made remote work more manageable © Dreamstime

Richard Punt, head of legal strategy at Thomson Reuters, agrees. Usually, legal practitioners learn by observing more experienced colleagues, “with partners looming over your shoulder making sure you do the right thing”. During the pandemic, however, senior colleagues could no longer supervise or train staff in this way.

“This is where virtual tools have helped — to manage projects, guide legal drafting processes and generally provide partners with control over what their people are doing,” says Mr Punt.

The shift to remote work has also changed lawyers’ approach to administrative tasks.

“Even the more tech-averse lawyers began to realise they could handle a lot of their own admin, typing and practice management,” thanks to tools that achieve such tasks more efficiently, he says. Rather than assigning legal secretaries for specific partners, many firms turned to a pooled model in which admin staff could service multiple lawyers.

Ashurst partner Tara Waters, who heads the law firm’s technology practice Ashurst Advance Digital, says many firms that had already been dabbling with collaborative tools such as online whiteboards increased their use during the pandemic.

Cloud-based platforms have also helped lawyers and their clients share files rather than relying purely on emails and attachments, she adds. “Even self-confessed ‘Luddite’ partners were technology converts who embraced digital tools like video conferencing and e-signature platforms.”

The advent of big data has helped to accelerate the use of digital tools.

“For many years now, large companies have been creating huge databases of information,” says Mr Letelier, “and we’re finally reaching a point where the historical data is meaningful and representative.” The M&A practice at HPE now has a decade of deals integrated into a platform, with details of more than 100.

Additionally, when Covid-19 hit, many organisations found that important legal documents and contracts were not easily accessible, says Mr Punt, which boosted demand for digital methods for drafting, managing and analysing legal documents.

The longer-term view

In 2020, the short-term problem was “can we keep working?”, he says. The long-term goal will be more complex: “How can we use the tools and processes we developed during the pandemic to become more efficient and productive — in the office, at home or on the road? These developments aren’t as sexy is AI-driven contract analysis, but they’re the kind of stuff that makes a real difference in the way lawyers work.”

Ms Waters says the focus at her firm is on “ensuring all of the knowledge and experience we discovered can be retained, while also recognising that there’s still huge benefit in having a physical space for everyone to gather and feel connected”.

Vasile Tiple, head of legal automation at tech provider UiPath, has noticed more law firms using automation to simplify and standardise processes. “There’s no better example of this than in the lifecycle of legal documents,” he says. The tech can simplify drafting a contract and allow the client to sign it digitally, ready for further digital handling.

UiPath uses robotic process automation (RPA) to help lawyers automate repetitive tasks, such as drafting documents, managing contracts, tracking regulatory changes, and interrogating e-discovery material.

“Lawyers are getting more familiar with using RPA to help them simplify their work — even if it’s automating their billable hours time sheets to create client invoices or use a software robot to do a first line review of a document,” says Mr Tiple.

Some law firms are making digital tools into products they can sell, says Sam Spivack, managing director at tech provider Bryter, which helps organisations automate business processes without needing to write code. “We’re seeing firms actively looking at creating new revenue streams by providing digital products or services,” he says.

Deloitte Legal recently developed a tool that trawls regulations across jurisdictions to help clients navigate the legal complexities of repatriating cash.

Ultimately, the aim is for technology to relieve lawyers of standardised, repetitive tasks, says Thomas Laubert, group general counsel at Daimler, the German automaker. “In this way, legal counsel can focus on creative tasks that machines cannot perform.”

Mr Laubert says legal tech has become indispensable to lawyers' daily work: “Covid-19 has changed the way in which we co-operate and communicate, and much of this will remain.”

Coding helps to refine legal skills, says HPE’s Sergio Letelier

Sergio Letelier, general counsel for M&A, Hewlett Packard Enterprise

The legal profession will split between those lawyers who understand coding and the rest, predicts Hewlett Packard Enterprise’s Sergio Letelier.

Already, some lawyers not only understand coding but are even developing their own applications. His team of 20 in-house lawyers and legal professionals, for instance, run insider-trading checks using code they developed themselves.

Gaining such skills helps lawyers understand the technology they are buying and using. “It also helps shape the way attorneys think about the technology in our business and better relate to our internal clients,” says Mr Letelier.

At the same time, the thought processes behind coding are remarkably close to legal drafting, “so an understanding of coding helps you refine your own legal skills”.

Before the pandemic hit, the team had already started using virtual reality as a collaboration tool — Mr Letelier likens this to Tom Cruise in the film Minority Report, speaking with his co-workers in a virtual room and accessing and analysing data by reaching out and selecting items floating around him.

With a convincing sense of space, “it has almost become a replacement for the physical workplace,” he says.

Moreover, when HPE lawyers travel they can take just the VR kit in order to access information and reach people, while dispensing with the laptop.

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