Eversheds Sutherland Partner and Head of Global Client Development Stephen Hopkins comments in an article by The Business Times titled 'Law firms best positioned to ride AI wave'
Eversheds Sutherland Partner and Head of Global Client Development Stephen Hopkins comments in an article by The Business Times titled 'Law firms best positioned to ride AI wave'. The article was first published on 28 September 2018.
Law firm best positioned to ride AI wave
THE legal profession has been experiencing change at a rate not seen before, with new technologies upending the old ways of practice, observed Singapore's Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon recently.
He was speaking at Mass Call 2018, where newly minted advocates and solicitors were called to the Bar. "It is on these shifting sands that you must now find your feet," he said.
Indeed, both lawyers and law firms in Singapore and around the world have been working to do just that: find their feet amid the evolving landscape wrought by technological change, with some succeeding better than others.
Stephen Hopkins, partner and head of global client development at multinational law practice Eversheds Sutherland, said: "New technological advances include the cloud, artificial intelligence (AI), robotic process automation and Big Data."
Speaking to The Business Times about the impact of digital disruption, he added: "These advances (have) had a major impact on the legal sector by supporting more efficient operations, better control and an unprecedented access to information. They have also pushed forward the ability to work across multiple jurisdictions and transformed law firms' relationships with clients."
But such developments have not affected all firms equally.
Mr Hopkins, who was named one of the top 50 innovators in law in the last 50 years by the American Lawyer magazine, said: "The traditional partnership model inhibits the speed with which legal technology solutions are being developed and implemented.
"New providers, with agile decision-making, leave traditional law firms struggling to maintain the pace. Some progressive firms are incorporating new structures within the law firm to combat that threat."
Younger law firms, he said, are in a good position to work from the ground up in creating firms centred on technology; there will also be startups that can leverage the changes and enter new markets, offering tech-first support for clients who prefer a more cost-effective solution, along with basic legal advice.
What about older law firms?
"More established law firms are also in an excellent position to invest resources and harness the benefits of these technologies. Firms need to anticipate the continued downward pressure on the price for commoditised work, and respond positively to this challenge, using technology-based solutions to achieve this," he said.
Eversheds Sutherland, for instance, has found the new technologies to be complementary to its client service offering. It has chosen to apply AI to contract reviews.
"By using an AI machine-learning engine to review and categorise the data set, we are able to identify points of concern. This enables our lawyers to focus their time on providing high-quality legal analysis and advice to complete the process, both improving the speed of our review and capabilities to handle large contract sets in short time frames, and maximising legal project management processes.
"Lawyers are able to deliver greater efficiencies by automating lower-value and routine work. This in turn allows legal teams to focus on continuing to provide quality advice and service," he said.
Eversheds Sutherland has a presence in Singapore through Eversheds Harry Elias, headed by Philip Fong. It was formed as a result of a merger between Eversheds Sutherland and Singapore law firm Harry Elias last year.
The level of innovation and automation sweeping through the legal industry will not, of course, be felt in equal measure across all law firms.
Mr Hopkins said: "Law firms have different needs when it comes to legal technology, depending on their areas of specialisation. For example, litigation versus commercial contracts. Their needs are also driven by the type of work they undertake: For example, managing multi-jurisdictional corporate mergers and acquisitions versus residential conveyancing."
At present, AI appears to be particularly useful for time-sensitive transactions and litigation, where there is a lot of documentation to manage; but it could soon be developed to support other specialist areas of law.
"Machines will be able to produce initial views on particular requests," Mr Hopkins said.
"Eversheds Sutherland is trialling robots where the robot will answer basic legal questions before requiring more complex legal input. These are already being used by our clients."
Technological innovation by clients is a big factor in driving lawyers and law firms to adopt some level of advanced technological support in their work.
"Law firms must adapt to their clients' demand for technological solutions. For example, global banks and other international clients such as Hilton Hotels and Turkish Airlines are consolidating their legal suppliers while demanding global reporting and analysis of data to drive efficiencies in their legal spend."
In fact, Mr Hopkins believes, many of the traditional manual ways of working will no longer be an option for firms that want to deliver client satisfaction. The best law firms of the future will be those that are able to embrace new technology and embed it in their organisations, he said.
Singapore, in particular, stands poised to ride the crest of this wave, with every possibility of the city-state becoming a regional hub for the legal tech sector.
"One of the great benefits for Singapore is the progressive approach taken by the government in advancing legal technology. The legal sector is the focus of attention through initiatives such as the Future Law Innovation Programme.
"There is genuine enthusiasm in Singapore to link tech startups to the legal community and develop concepts that can be commercialised. There is also significant commercial funding available from the likes of (American venture capital firm) Sequoia Capital, which have a track record of successful investment in legal tech companies."
But, as exciting as this growth in innovation is, it also needs to be recognised that humans are needed to train AI and interpret the information produced, and that, unlike how it is depicted in movies, AI is meant to support human functioning rather than take over it.
While innovation may negate the need for some jobs within law firms, it has also created the need for others.
Mr Hopkins said: "Eversheds Sutherland now employs a more diverse group of employees, not only in terms of gender, race and background, but also in qualifications and expertise. We have project managers, legal technologists, data scientists and other professionals who come from non-legal backgrounds. This new approach means that technologists now undertake work that was previously managed by qualified lawyers, leaving lawyers to deliver more value-added solutions.
"Contextual understanding and application of legal and situational judgement is still a key requirement, and therefore, we will see an augmented approach to the way in which law firms utilise these technologies."
Mr Hopkins said he believes new opportunities are appearing every day for lawyers to upskill and diversify, with the ability to work across a range of platforms being a key skill in the coming years.
"For people who are ready to embrace change and a technology-based future, this is an exciting time to become a lawyer. (And) law-firm growth (in the future) will be driven by a combination of the best lawyers using the best tools."
Author: Michelle Quah, The Business Times
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