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Lawyers need an innovative watchdog for the tech era

25 November 2016

By Dame Janet Paraskeva, Chair of the CLC

A chatbot has successfully challenged hundreds of thousands of parking tickets in London and New York. It is surely only a matter of time until artificial intelligence (AI) brings the impact of the fourth industrial revolution to wider legal services.

The degree of automation that can be achieved may vary between services, but it seems clear that the most progressive legal businesses will in future operate very differently, meeting client expectations more efficiently and cheaply.

Traditionalists mourn the passing of the old ways, but let’s not forget the high prices and poor service 30 years ago that prompted the creation of the profession of licensed conveyancer to introduce fresh competition. Maybe I’m swayed by the location of our offices on the so-called Silicon Roundabout in London, but it seems that “lawtech” offers opportunities. It could help widen access to legal services too. We regulators must help to facilitate that.

The largest firms regulated by the Council for Licensed Conveyancers would be unrecognisable as law firms to a time-traveller from 20 years ago. That is because of the degree of automation and the ratio of lawyers to non-lawyers working in those firms. Highly specialised lawyers supervise the work. The firms they lead are answerable to a specialised regulator, protecting the consumer.

This model, with service design led by customer expectation, is extremely successful. The increasing market share being taken by such firms is proof. Activity-based regulation is perhaps especially appropriate here, because it can focus sharply on the risks particular to those legal services and client profiles. This gives firms the maximum possible flexibility compatible with consumer protection.

The Legal Services Board rightly plans to reform regulation, looking at which services need to be regulated. The current system has evolved haphazardly and is a mess. Some counsel a steady-as-she-goes approach through the choppy waters of Brexit, saying we cannot risk change. The Law Society is the leading defender of the status quo, perhaps anxious to defend its members’ interests.

However, the British are good at recognising when everything must change so that everything may remain the same. That means a revolution in legal services delivery and regulation to remain the global jurisdiction of choice. The UK’s businesses need every possible advantage so they can compete and grow. We can't stand still while the world changes around us.

Designing organisations to regulate legal services in future is a dull matter. There are more interesting questions around the appropriate scope of regulation – and most excitingly, there is the question of how legal services will be delivered in the future.

We have no map for the post-Brexit landscape, but developing a framework that supports innovation in the delivery of legal services will put UK law firms in the best possible position for that world. As an activity-based regulator with unmatched experience regulating innovative, automated and commoditised services, the Council for Licensed Conveyancers is ready to help build that framework for a new age of law.

This article originally appear in the The Times' The Brief