Traditionally, prior to the recent global recession, it was always the private sector side of the legal profession that led innovation in legal technology.
One might have expected this to continue throughout the downturn, given the potential cost savings and efficiencies available from technologies such as secure legal communication and court bundling. However, the severity of the recession forced many practices to batten down the hatches. Indeed, some very highly regarded law firms were seen laying off staff that were not fee earning.
At the time, this seemed shortsighted, and as I understand it, these actions were simply a knee-jerk response aimed at weathering the storm. Technology could and has played its part in helping practices of all kinds to adjust more quickly to their circumstances, but this wasn’t a clarion call for innovation. In contrast, the public sector has reacted quite differently.
Their formal employment regimes didn’t allow them to rapidly reduce the number of people they employed, and they had less opportunity to stop providing “loss making” services. As a result, they had to look at other ways of making cost savings and boosting efficiency. To them, legal systems seemed to offer a real opportunity. As a result, it was the public sector that took up the role as legal technology innovators.
This process started as local authorities used legal technology to combat unnecessary costs. One example of this is document / court bundling. While most courts still ultimately require paper files (although there is now an increasing move to digitize the courts), the preparation and management of court bundles electronically is now delivering huge benefits both internally and for a considerable number of interested parties such as the legal representatives of those involved.
One of the main benefits is the enormous amount of time that is saved in collating, paginating, amending, and distributing bundles when compared to manual methods. Consequently, processes that would have taken hours, if not days, are now possible in minutes. Then there are the significant environmental benefits too, as the amount of paper required is a fraction of what it has previously been. This in turn reduces storage requirements and costs greatly, as one is now taking disk space rather than rows of paper files in boxes or on shelves.
It follows, of course, that the planned destruction of files is also far easier and less costly as the days of the ”confidential waste paper sack” gradually pass into history. Another major benefit is the security of online communication, where files arrive securely at their destination within minutes. This eliminates the need for costly parcel or bike couriers and the chance of files going astray.
With these incentives, the take-up is proving to be rapid, and just looking at London, we have seen some excellent work done with cutting-edge legal technology at Lambeth, Southwark, and Hounslow borough councils. We are also greatly impressed by the use of legal technology by the South London Legal Partnership which has been set up to provide legal services by the boroughs of Richmond, Merton, Sutton, and Kingston. With the importance of proactive networking among local authorities, it is highly likely that we shall see the legal services team of other councils make the move to electronic systems in the very near future.
One or two of the courts are also now considering the idea of accepting electronic bundles, and this would prove to be transformational. It will no doubt be the local authority sector though, that will drive this process when the time comes. What is especially encouraging is the functional spread of the technology throughout these local governmental organizations.
Indeed, in many cases there are application uses that are far beyond the mainstream legal services model. One recent application has seen bundling software spread to a number of coroners’ offices where evidence and inquest bundles are sometimes required in significant quantities. In addition, case bundles can be prepared for social services requirements such as child protection and even for complex briefs such as building tenders.
Here are also examples where secure delivery is now being used for communicating council minutes and supplier contracts. There is a host of activity on the integration side too, where secure delivery and court bundling systems are being integrated with the leading case management, e-signature, and AML (anti-money laundering) systems. What is especially encouraging though, is that as the economy recovers, the private sector side is now placing a far greater emphasis on the use of legal software. Indeed, we are already seeing legal technology playing its part in some tremendously innovative uses.
The award winning aviation claims business built by Bott & Co. is one that particularly springs to mind. And while secure delivery and court bundling is fast becoming a best practice in the local authority sector, it is the re-invigorated practice side that will now be the unwitting but welcome beneficiaries of all the hard work done by their in-house counterparts in local government.
With this excellent provenance, the chances are that secure legal communications systems and court bundling will rapidly establish itself as best practice in the private sector side, too. If this does happen, one could well see the private sector returning to a more innovative role in the near future.
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