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Matt Shearer: How Law Firms Can Sidestep Three Classic Digitisation Mistakes

By Matt Shearer, Product Director, Data Language 

In recent years, the legal sector has begun taking its first meaningful steps beyond basic digitisation towards true digital transformation. The industry is making a concerted effort to move away from a manual, document-centric approach to business processes, towards being data-led and utilising machines for more administrative heavy-lifting. 

For example, 2019 saw the launch of General-purpose Legal Mark-up Language, which enables accurate extraction of data from legal documentation for sharing with relevant intermediaries in an automated and seamless way. It’s great to see initiatives like this from the private sector, as well as government-funded programmes like the Tech Nation LawTech Sandbox, which opened in December 2020. 

These developments are promising as they mirror what has played out in early digital transformation adopting sectors, such as media, healthcare and sport. Most importantly, the legal industry has the opportunity to sidestep the hurdles faced by those first-movers and avoid the same headaches. 

Based on my experience supporting digital transformation initiatives across a number of sectors, below are the three most common mistakes made by businesses, along with guidance on how they can be avoided. 

1. Not committing to best practice information management

Good data and information management is fundamental to any digitisation initiative. In my experience, when faced with challenges relating to data management, many businesses decide to deal with these challenges ‘at a later date’. This creates a snowball of further complications and limits business’ ability to adapt to evolving market conditions or develop new services. The result of data disorganisation in business in all sectors can be devastatingly expensive, but not always visible.

Law firms can avoid this stumbling block by prioritising best practice information management right out of the gate. This includes ensuring that all data is not only clean and well-structured but that it has portability – the ability to be transferred from one data controller to another while retaining context and meaning. This is particularly important if AI implementations are the end goal – if you put bad data in, you will get bad insights out! 

Clean, structured, and portable data that covers all areas of a law firm will enable the company to see all their clients, case classifications, financial statuses, and how these all connect, at a glance. In practice, this will mean that legal teams do not need to spend time communicating to their finance, administrative and leadership teams on administrative matters – leaving their time to be spent on their core, billable business.  

2.Tech for the sake of it 

The second common mistake is not prioritising the right areas of a business – the areas where digital transformation and automation can add the most value. Companies typically find this difficult because technology fads distract them. This magpie-like tendency needs to be recognised and managed. The key for law firms will be to restrain themselves from a knee-jerk adoption of a ‘buzzword’ technology because it’s new and shiny. Instead, they should evaluate their core data to understand their differentiators and USPs, as an understanding of their differentiators will help them make decisions about which capabilities to build or buy. When making build or buy decisions, law firms should also take into account what capabilities have already been commoditised. If there is a tried and tested product on the market, there’s no sense in reinventing the wheel. Building bespoke solutions is only valuable when a fit for purpose solution does not already exist and the new tool will support your core strengths and USPs. 

3.Neglecting software engineering 

If a law firm makes the decision to build certain services inhouse, particularly those related to data science and AI, then they must not underestimate the engineering challenge. In the last four to five years, there has been a rapid rise in solutions on the market that promise to intelligently automate AI software engineering tasks. These, however, have been aimed at data scientists. 

Law firms would do well to learn from other sectors, who, half way through digitisation initiatives, changed the balance of their hiring. Law firms should look at employing software engineers with some AI knowledge rather than data scientists who have some coding skills, as sectors like media and financial services did for several years. Successful AI implementations require software engineering, and without adequate investment in this area, will simply not get off the ground. 

Where’s next for the legal sector?

The legal sector has two key advantages when it comes to digital transformation. First, it has the opportunity to learn from other industries’ experiences and mistakes. Second, law firms, particularly large ones, typically already have information professionals working in-house. If the industry can bring them to the fore and ensure they are a cornerstone of their initiatives to digitise and innovate, they are likely to avoid many of the hurdles faced by the first-mover industries that prioritised digital transformation a decade ago.