LawFest 2018 – a review and some reflections on communicating with clients

I was back for LawFest 2018 having attended for the first-time last year. Sir Ray Avery gave an excellent keynote, pointing out three aspects of New Zealand culture that makes us a country where innovation can occur with ease: we are not fond of rules, happy to shake up the status quo, and we dare to dream.[1] There were plenty of innovators to be found in the room; it is great to see so many startups finding a foothold in New Zealand’s legal marketplace.

The risk that LawFest now runs is that it becomes a trade show rather than what it is billed as: “legal technology and innovation conference of the year”. Some presentations skimmed the surface of complex issues and could have been interpreted as a product launch or advertising – the presentation by Uber was a particularly stark example. Last year there were streams that provided an introduction for those seeking orientation to new technology and a more advanced stream for those who wanted to debate those topics in more depth. Having spent the last year immersed in reading and teaching about the future of the legal profession, I was keen for a higher level of debate. I’d like to see a return to the dual-stream format to cater to both audiences.

A discussion that piqued my interest was about lawyers going paperless in court. Josh McBride and Lloyd Gallagher both had some interesting takes on this issue. Josh pointed out that the annotating functions when working with Adobe Acrobat meant that there was greatly reduced cost in terms of picking up a case after an 18-month hiatus. As we found on our study on the pace of civil litigation in the High Court, there are significant costs (passed on to the client) in lawyers getting back up to speed after they have put a case down for many months. That this cost is cut down by simply using a readily available technology is one all lawyers should be noting.

Lloyd commented that he had trouble convincing one lawyer to give up paper; she continually resisted the idea of going to court with just an iPad. When she explained her nervousness, it was not a fear that the technology might fail or a desire to spread things out on a desk for ease of reference, issues Josh had cited for resistance. Instead, it was because when she went to court with paper she would have people pushing trollies of documents into court and she felt this demonstrated to the client how much work she had done. If she went with just an iPad, the work would be invisible. This is a very real issue for the lawyer-client relationship. When I studied litigants in person, a common complaint and reason for leaving legal representation was that they were paying a lot of money and could not see the work that was being done. Legal work is mostly reading and thinking, work for which there is little tangible evidence. Paper and strategically placed books are the only outward signs of what lawyers’ work involves – just think of all the photos of lawyers with shelves of books as a background.

Lloyd’s retort was a good one: communicate with the client. If you constantly communicate with the client – telling them what you are doing and involving them in the case – then you will not need a whole lot of paper to demonstrate to them that you’ve been working on their case. This picked up something Sir Ray had said as well, that is a mistake to see customers as external.

Rethinking the lawyer-client relationship requires a major mindset shift for many lawyers. Lawyers are often not particularly skilled at involving clients in a case and indeed, may not see the need, or even view it as an unnecessary expense. As Susan Bennett said in another session: “We’re not very good [as lawyers] at being customer-centric”. At LawFest that observation hopefully amounts to preaching to the choir, but it is a message that has been slow to reach the majority of the legal community. It is one lawyers need to start listening to or clients will vote with their feet. If LawFest demonstrated anything, it is that there is rapidly evolving competition to traditional legal services and the space for complacency is quickly shrinking.

[1] He also made some interesting observations about changing workplace culture, comments that were particularly relevant in the midst of NZ law’s #metoo moment. He suggested that a non-hierarchical structure, minimising competition, and treating people as people and important members of a team, would minimise room for “Weinstein moments” in the workplace.

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