Innovating legal services – LawFest report

I attended the rather awkwardly named LawFest in Auckland this week, now in its seventh year, but a first time for me. It is a one-day event on legal technology and innovation and I was interested to see what was happening in New Zealand. The answer is, quite a bit, although we still lag compared to the countries we commonly we look towards. One thing that really struck me was the idea of the “new lawyer”[1] coming through – an agile, engaged, interdisciplinary professional working alongside complementary service providers, in a partnership with the client.

This theme emerged from the beginning with Rod Morris’s impressive keynote address arguing that customer experience was the new market monopoly. The days of the “knowledge economy” where the lawyer is the “trusted advisor” possessing esoteric knowledge are over. Now the lawyer must be a “business enabler”, working in concert with client. This included the need for lawyers to be inventive fee arrangements with their clients, not just carrying on with hourly billing and calling a discounted rack rate innovative. There were starts up represented in the exhibition hall who have already cottoned on to this like Legal Beagle who are offering fixed prices documents to the public and their related service is offering a platform to lawyers. I’m hopeful that there were other attendees present who are looking to this model, and who might even follow the lead of such stylish firms as Australia’s Marque Lawyers who offer fixed price – even for litigation. This sort of innovation holds the promise of making legal services much more accessible and, IMNSHO, is long overdue in New Zealand.

While technology is not about to replace lawyers, technology is changing how lawyers work  and that is changing the skill set lawyers need. There was some discussion of the need for lawyers to gather more expertise in emerging areas, like understanding blockchain. Equally, there was an emphasis on working with others who have expertise that lawyers don’t possess. In an interesting presentation on the potential of Technology Assisted Review (TAR) (otherwise known as, “cutting down on the mind-numbing, expensive and inaccurate initiation rite of manual discovery by legions of junior lawyers”), Edward Burrell talked about working with the tech experts to refine the TAR process. Caroline Ferguson gave a great presentation about getting stuck in and piloting innovations, rather than waiting for perfection. Her themes echoed Margaret Hagan’s encouragement to “pause feasibility” and I figure must be an Open Law Lab fan too as she put up Margaret’s slide on The Next Generation Law Grad, which is all about lawyers needing to both have tech skills and be able to collaborate with others. If we can start turning out “The Next Generation Law Grad” there is much more potential for innovative, low-cost, clever services that can help people access civil justice.

Just to round out my day, the same ideas came through loud and clear in an excellent plenary panel on technology and innovation recorded in Melbourne that – thanks to the wonders of technology – I could listen to while stuck on the Auckland motorway. I came away with the impression momentum is gathering around innovating legal services in New Zealand. It could of course just be an echo chamber effect from hanging out with like-minded people (virtually and physically) but I hope it is real.

[1] I’m not sure if she was there, but Katie Cowan has an interesting podcast series for aimed a law students and recent grads called  “The New Lawyer”, also picking up on the theme of the changing nature of legal practice.