Across the legal industry, the ‘new normal’ after COVID-19 demands a relentless focus on mobility and security as lawyers shift towards a remote way of working. The time has come for law firms to speed up technology adoption and integrate it into the practice of law.
THE WINDS OF CHANGE IN HONG KONG
The COVID-19 pandemic is a key driving force behind the sharp rise in the adoption of technology in legal services, as global lockdowns and travel restrictions continue to impact the operation of law firms worldwide. Although technology innovation in the Asia Pacific (APAC) was still in its infancy just over a year ago, the pandemic and the sudden, rather involuntary, shift to remote working have pushed them to adapt and evolve, regardless of how ready they are.
Pre-COVID-19, the legal sector in Hong Kong was already feeling the heat from China's Belt and Road Initiative. The fact that many of the economies along the Belt and Road routes have yet to develop mature legal systems and technologies means that investing in innovative legal tools will be a top priority for law firms to mitigate data security risks as they expand their services into these less developed markets,
A third factor is that client expectations are changing. They are increasingly demanding fixed or capped fees instead of the traditional billable hour model. They also expect lawyers to work much faster. In the past, they may have waited days for revisions to be made on a draft document, but today they expect that revisions will be turned around in a few hours. These expectations push lawyers to strive to boost the efficiency of legal processes or risk having low profit margins.
Young lawyers provide another impetus for change. Some younger lawyers coming into the sector are millennials who have grown up with technology and expect to use it in the workplace. They tend to be adopters of new technologies and see the advantages of integrating them into the practice of law.
EMERGING TRENDS AND APPLICATIONS OF LEGAL TECH
Artificial intelligence (AI), blockchain, and the cloud are some of the biggest technology trends emerging in the legal sector. Innovations behind these trends are improving legal processes and changing how lawyers handle time-consuming tasks, with new tools being developed to automate the due diligence and contract review process, maintain an electronic audit trail and streamline litigation matter workflow, to name a few.
As technology evolves, legal documents are often stored in the cloud these days with the benefit being that documents are accessible by all parties from anywhere. Some secure cloud applications allow users to encrypt, edit, audit, track changes, and control access to documents and records so that any changes can be tracked. The cloud enables these applications to run efficiently on third-party servers, thus eliminating the need for extensive in-house storage. The time and costs associated with maintaining hundreds of thousands of legal documents on internal systems are drastically reduced.
Artificial Intelligence (AI)
With AI-based drafting tools, some common, standardized documents such as non-disclosure or confidentiality agreements can be created in a matter of minutes. Documents can also be modified for individual clients based on AI-generated templates. The incredible accuracy of AI also reduces the likelihood of disputes arising because of drafting errors.
Law firms can leverage the high degree of security associated with blockchain technology to give clients more confidence in how sensitive documents are handled. Any update or changes to a document is tracked via blockchain, and any activity such as copying, moving, and deletion being performed on the document is logged in an immutable audit trail, which helps lawyers identify the party liable for a breach of contract.
WHY ARE LAW FIRMS SLOW TO ADOPT NEW TECHNOLOGY?
Although law firms in Hong Kong have shown interest in adopting legal tech into the delivery of services and commodity work, there are still considerable reservations. The top three challenges slowing down the adoption of technology in legal work are:
- The Billable Hour
The billable hour, charging clients based on the time spent working on and thinking about their legal matters, is how most law firms bring in revenue. This traditional model provides little incentive to increase efficiency as greater efficiency means fewer billable hours, hence reduced income. While new legal tools are changing the way tasks like document review and due diligence are performed, it becomes harder for lawyers to continue charging high rates for their services.
- Cybersecurity and Data Security
For law firms, the need for data security has never been greater. Leaked information, especially confidential client data or regulated content, can lead to significant fines and reputational damage. The increase in cyber attacks of corporations worldwide, the misuse and abuse of confidential data, and the near-impossibility of creating a functional system with no security weakness all contribute to lawyers’ vulnerability to cyber espionage. However, the legal industry is characterized as a conservative one, with a low tendency for innovation and change. For security-conscious law firms, it is a case of looking carefully at all the associated threats and security risks of integrating technologies into their practice, which could take years until these security concerns are addressed and a decision is made.
Some law firms are concerned that costs may spiral as they embrace legal technology; for example, an increase in spending on hiring and training staff to manage the new legal tools and deal with post-implementation issues such as system compatibility and updates. Given the uncertainty in the return on investment (ROI), and that most firms are already seeing growth in revenue and profitability, there is little immediate need to change. Instead of jumping into legal tech, which some believe will divert resources from profit generation and servicing client projects, they tend to hold off until there is a more prominent push for change.
ADDRESSING THE CHALLENGES : IN-HOUSE VS. THIRD-PARTY SOLUTIONS
Law firms, especially those with a higher level of internal resources, may opt for in-house solutions. Based on an assessment of their specific needs, new tools are developed to perform functions like e-signatures, e-meetings, e-discovery, and document management. The flexibility with in-house development allows these firms to create solutions tailored to the practice areas where costs and revenues are the highest. For example, M&A, corporate finance, litigation, tax, and intellectual property are typically the most profitable practice areas. They often use similar supporting documentation that can be drafted, edited and managed more efficiently in terms of cost and time using legal tech.
Third-Party Fintech Solutions
For law firms that either lack the resources or prefer to invest them in other areas of the business, third-party solution providers, such as Intralinks, have created a suite of often cloud-based products to help law firms safeguard their data and day-to-day processes while meeting stringent regulatory demands and reducing risks.
Most of these third-party collaboration tools feature a full audit trail of all user activities, which has been proven particularly helpful in the event of security violations. In addition, law firms can benefit from the Information Rights Management (IRM) capabilities of these tools to manage information access permissions down to the document level, granting and revoking access, and even pre-setting expiration dates of such access, for example, when a project has ended.
Most of these cloud-based solutions are available on a pay-per-user or pay-per-transaction basis, therefore not necessarily a large capital cost upfront. Being in the cloud also means lawyers can review, comment, and annotate documents from anywhere while collaborating with other parties securely.
HONG KONG TO INTEGRATE MORE TECH INTO LEGAL LANDSCAPE
Hong Kong remains an important legal and financial hub. For law firms to remain competitive regionally and internationally, lagging behind in tech adoption simply isn’t an option in the ‘new economy’. From the Belt and Road Initiative alone, firms could lose hundreds of millions of revenue if their current tech infrastructures are not prepared for the competition.
While face-to-face interaction will remain an integral part of the future of Hong Kong’s legal landscape, it is almost certain now working and collaborating remotely will become a new way of working post-COVID. Driven by the growing focus on mobility and security, legal tech adoption is becoming a necessity rather than an option. The time has come for law firms to speed up technology adoption and adapt to the changing landscape.
Account Manager, Corporate Development
SS&C Intralinks (Hong Kong & Taiwan)
T: +852 3704 4547
M: +852 5662 8528
Alan Pang is responsible for Corporate Development in Hong Kong and Macau. He is dedicated to supporting corporates across all industries and advising on how to best leverage Intralinks software to improve cross-enterprise collaboration, secure file sharing, M&A and capital raising.