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Innovation requires more than new pot plants

28 July 2016 - By Thomas Bloy and Kieran Boyle

Photo of pot plants
Attractive pot plants: not sufficient for innovation.

Unless you practice under a rock, you will probably know that the legal profession is undergoing a radical transformation.

No lawyer who reads LawTalk could have escaped the fact that software and other technology are no longer just means for lawyers to improve their practices.

At best, technology is a now a disrupter of the traditional legal services model – at worst (for lawyers), a complete replacement of it.

So what are New Zealand’s leading firms doing about it?

Reading a recent New Zealand Herald report, you could be excused for thinking the height of innovation is moving or renovating your office. Open-plan workspaces, height-adjustable desks, living walls, and fancy CBD premises.

The authors are underwhelmed. In July 2016, with legal practice under siege on all sides by technology, do the leaders of this esteemed profession really believe a modern office passes for innovation?

The report told us about the significant sums of money various top firms are piling into their offices in an attempt to modernise and future-proof their practices. But how would a multi-million dollar investment in a building future-proof a business that essentially deals in documents and advice:

  • documents that can be generated anywhere and stored in the Cloud, secure and encrypted;
  • advice that can be given anywhere, by a variety of means?

Except for the physical storage of original documents and sensitive material (which can be outsourced like any other service), there is a digital solution available right now for almost everything a lawyer needs to do in person.

These solutions do not require a large office, let alone one in CBD Auckland. Technological development means that trend will only increase. Even appearances at court and tribunal hearings may eventually be done remotely.

Silly investment

So the idea that a large investment in a building could possibly future-proof a legal practice is, to our minds, a bit silly. You’re going to get a nice office, but not much else that you don’t already have.

The law firms mentioned in the article made much of their belief that innovative open-plan offices are designed to appeal to the next generation of lawyers.

Wait a minute. This is the same generation that have grown up with the Cloud and constant connectivity.

The generation beyond the current crop of “Millennials” has never known a world without the Internet. It’s a group that will probably prefer to work from anywhere, at any time, using any device, rather than a tiresome commute into town every morning to work on an ancient desktop PC connected to an ancient local server. Even with the marvel of a mechanical, height-adjustable desk, it is doubtful they would find an open plan office, or any office for that matter, to be innovative, appealing, or interesting. Perhaps in the 90s. Today the idea seems, well, retro.

Or maybe worse than retro. Google “open plan office” and you will immediately find an article by the Washington Post entitled “Silicon Valley got it wrong – open plan offices are destroying the workplace”.

Go down the page a bit further and you get an article published on 25 February 2016 by another commentator called “9 Reasons That Open-Space Offices Are Insanely Stupid”.

Lower productivity

The nine reasons included “they decrease productivity”, “they make employees miserable”, “they create time-consuming distractions”, and “they blunt your highly-paid brainpower”. Doesn’t that sound like exactly the sort of stuff a legal practice should avoid? Lawyers are inefficient and miserable enough as it is!

The authors are admittedly biased when it comes to legal offices. Having experienced the torture of an open-plan office, the misery of a cubicle, the solitude of a closed office – all combined with the daily drudgery of commuting – and the bliss of a well organised home office, there is simply no question in our minds which is best.

The connected and virtually integrated home office reigns supreme. It is cheapest, most convenient, and, with the right technology just as, if not more, functional than the traditional ivory tower.

Biased as it may be, our view is that the aggressive move towards open plan offices reveals a startling disconnect between the thinking of the existing legal establishment and those who will inherit the profession.

To give some perspective, the authors are 29 and 30 years old. According to the New Zealand Law Society, as at 1 May 2016, the average age of a New Zealand male lawyer was 45.3 years, and the average female lawyer age was 38.0 years. So the authors are young bucks (some would say upstarts).

But even we are not the target of the “future proofing” investments made by New Zealand leading law firms. The target is the lot after us. If we prefer the convenience of a connected home office right now, the idea of an open-plan office will be even less attractive to the next generation of lawyers.

Consumers are also increasingly expecting remote and online services. At the same time, they are becoming more aware that they subsidise their law firm’s overheads. The swanky office in town might have painted a veneer of respectability and professionalism in the past, but that veneer is crumbling as modern clients become more pragmatic and cost-conscious.

Against that backdrop, a big investment in said swanky office seriously risks looking out of touch and out of date – and expensive, especially in Auckland. Not only is Auckland one of the least affordable cities in the world to live and work in, its traffic congestion problem is a massive drag on productivity.

Commuting time

The 2016 TomTom travel survey found that the average Aucklander spends 20 working days a year travelling to work – a 7% increase from 2008. Add travel home from work each day and the amount of wasted time is scary.

None of this commuting time is incurred when you work from home. Nor do you have to spend an hour each morning to make yourself look pretty. A lawyer’s advice will be just as good if prepared on a laptop on the couch while wearing shorts and a T-shirt as it would be if prepared in a CBD office in a tailored suit. The former just costs less.

As to whether the traditional trappings of the profession hold the lustre they used to, a leading member of the profession recently remarked to one of the authors that many young lawyers eagerly embrace the expectations placed on them to look and act the part. It was observed that the daily ritual of preparing oneself to be presentable and interacting with other young lawyers formed a large part of their personal identities. This seemed a tad far-fetched given the uncompromising (some would say anachronistically cruel) standards imposed on appearance in many firms. But even if true, is that really the type of character trait that is to be encouraged in this day and age?

As far as the physical interaction point goes, a virtual office does not mean people don’t get together. It just means meetings happen at someone’s business premises, house or café, rather than a sterile office with fake pot plants.

Staff can be constantly connected, through mobile, email, Skype, Facebook, and shared Cloud-based software.

We are not advocates of the purely “online law firm”. We actively seek to meet with our clients and colleagues and talk things through in person. We just don’t ask our clients to pay for our commercial lease.

Real innovation

Rather than increasingly out-dated attempts to appeal to what people might once have expected a lawyer or law firm to look like, real innovation in the legal profession, as with virtually any other, lies in utilising existing and rapidly developing technology to provide better service. Though it might sting the sensibilities of long-time practitioners, much of what lawyers do can be, and is being automated. It is no longer in the realm of futurist speculation.

US law firms are already beginning to use artificial intelligence as part of their regular practice.

One firm has employed IBM’s AI ROSS to provide bankruptcy litigation support. While it may be overreaching to suggest that lawyers will be replaced by robots in decades to come, there can be no doubt that the scope of legal services that actually require human input will diminish. With that in mind, ideas around future proofing the legal profession should be focused on developing systems where the expertise only a trained lawyer can provide co-exists with technology.

While we understand our firm is tiny compared with the 300-lawyer behemoths mentioned in the Herald’s article, the beauty of technology and workforce management practices is that they are scalable. Size is no justification for inefficiency. Nor is it an excuse for indifference to how technology might benefit legal practice.

Cost-effective service

The rise of the machines, of course, poses a real threat to the survival of many lawyers, whose roles will inevitably become redundant. However, this is no reason to resist change. It is clearly in the best interests of consumers of legal services, which is nearly everyone in some shape or form, that the profession embraces technological advancement as far as possible.

It can only lead to better, more cost-effective service. It could even be considered part of lawyers’ fiduciary duty.

But the legal profession is, by its own judgment, poor at adopting new technology. Here is a direct quote from a recent post on the New Zealand Law Society’s website about a survey of Australian lawyers: “The survey, conducted in February by InfoTrack and InPlace Solutions, revealed that 60% of lawyers believed the biggest impediment to achieving greater efficiencies in legal service delivery was the profession’s resistance to adopt technologies that improve productivity and reduce risk.” The same will no doubt be true of the New Zealand legal profession.

Why? We have no idea.

Lawyers did not resist adopting the facsimile and email (in fact, many resist relinquishing the now outdated fax).

Embracing the Cloud and remote service provision is the next small step. It is not a great leap. But it is a step New Zealand leading law firms seem unready to take.

For now, it seems the pinnacle of innovation and forward-thinking in the legal profession lies in contact centre style offices, living walls, and mechanical desks. We think lawyers can, should, and eventually will be forced to do better.


Thomas Bloy is a director of Evolution Lawyers and CataLex.
Kieran Boyle is a solicitor at Evolution Lawyers.

Last updated on the 28th July 2016