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“Beyond Our Borders” Dares the Legal Industry to Change

May 15, 2018

Panel participants at Beyond Our Borders
Global legal industry thought leaders discussed the future of the profession at the legal innovation summit.

On May 3-4, legal industry thought leaders from around the world gathered at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law for “Beyond Our Borders”, a global innovation summit on the changing landscape of the legal ecosystem. The conference consisted of twelve different panels, presentations, and networking events that tackled the future of the legal industry at a time when technological advances, new delivery models and a rapidly-shifting marketplace are transforming the profession. The event was also livestreamed on the Law School’s YouTube channel and LegalBusinessWorld’s website, allowing viewers from all corners of the globe to participate in the event.

Though the role of technology was at the center of many discussions, the consensus among the speakers was that true innovation was not about digital know-how but about the imperative to change legal culture. “Until we deal with our cultural challenges, we will not be as successful as we can be, or we’ll be adopting changes in such small increments that it becomes an issue,” said Andrew Arruda, CEO and Co-Founder of ROSS Intelligence. “The change must come from within.”

What, exactly, did they mean by cultural change? Several of the speakers pointed out that the traditional law firm had not been able to address two of the biggest challenges of the legal sector: broadening access to justice and improving legal delivery services. “The vast majority of individuals and small businesses cannot access the legal services that could change their lives,” said Crispin Passmore, Executive Director of the United Kingdom’s Solicitors Regulatory Authority. High fees, burdensome regulations, and lawyers’ monopoly on the legal industry meant that large sectors of the population had been left out of the marketplace. As an example of ways that cultural innovation can ease the access-to-justice burden, Passmore highlighted the UK’s Legal Services Act of 2007, which allowed regulators to process alternative business structures for the legal industry. As a result, England and Wales are now seeing multidisciplinary practices pop up like small firms that also function as business counseling services or accountants that are versed in legal advice. “Independence,” Passmore concluded, “is what drives innovation.”

Speakers highlighted other examples of cultural innovation from their own countries. Eva Bruch, founder of Barcelona-based Alterwork, pointed out legal providers that offered contract templates to individual consumers and freelancers and the role of design thinking in helping law firms expand their business. John Fernandez, Chief Innovation Officer at Dentons, noted that even Biglaw is entering the innovation space by launching tech collaborations, labs, and accelerators to meet the demand of clients that expect the delivery of legal services to be quicker, cheaper, and more efficient. Though adapting to these changes may prove challenging, panelists approached them with a sense of excitement. “Changes are having a huge, positive impact on humankind,” said Fernandez. “We should embrace it. Lawyers won’t become extinct but innovation will force us to be better.”   

“In order for technology to be meaningful, it has to be designed to address law’s wicked problems, like the question of access to justice.”

Cultural change also means fostering legal education that employs multidisciplinary knowledge, teaches students to be competent with technology, instills an entrepreneurial mindset, and emphasizes the importance of public service. “We have the imperative and the need to give our students modern skills for a modern world,” said Dean Daniel B. Rodriguez in his presentation on law school innovation. Some institutions, like Northwestern Pritzker School Law, Germany’s Bucerius Law School, and Canada’s newly-launched Ryerson Law School are updating their curriculums, offering pedagogical simulations, and developing programs in order to create the lawyer of the future.

As for technology, several speakers underlined the fact that it is only a tool but not the be-all and end-all of the legal future. Mark Cohen, CEO of Legal Mosaic and a Distinguished Fellow at the Center for Practice Engagement and Innovationat the Law School, said it best in his opening remarks: “In order for technology to be meaningful, it has to be designed to address law’s wicked problems, like the question of access to justice.” There are, of course, digital goods that already have the potential to solve some of these pressing questions. For example, AI can help automate repetitive legal tasks and allow lawyers to focus their mental efforts on providing real relief to clients. As Laura Van Wyngaarden, the Co-founder of Toronto-based Diligen, argued, “technology can feel magical when it allows us to do things we’ve never done before.”

There are, of course, players in the legal ecosystem that are more hesitant to incorporate any innovation, whether on a technological or cultural level. Law tends to be a highly skeptical industry, slow to change, and attached to rigid partnerships and billing structures that can make modernization difficult. Some of this resistance is warranted, as most of the presenters pointed out. Technology is still a work-in-progress and there are ethical considerations to take into account with regards to privacy, data sharing, and cybersecurity. Young lawyers that are trained to be entrepreneurial, progressive professionals might find themselves in law firms that are ill-equipped to maximize their skills.

On the other hand, conference speakers and attendees agreed that the new legal paradigm is here to stay and those who don’t adapt to it may be left behind. The way forward lies in removing cultural barriers, embracing collaborative thinking, and being keenly aware of how shifting practices in one nation can affect your own local practice. The industry itself has to be willing to take risks. This call to action was summed up by Joek Peters, Founder and CEO of LegalBusinessWorld: “Dare to start a fire. Dare to start something new.”

Individual talks from “Beyond Our Borders” are available on the Law School’s YouTube channel.