UK Law Gazette Article: Setting the standards for lawtech

The Law Gazette writes…

If computers are to take on an increasing part of solicitors’ workload, how do we ensure that such systems are designed, built and operated to the right professional standards? Last week both the Law Society and the Solicitors Regulation Authority made significant announcements on ‘lawtech’.

The SRA announcements accompanied the publication of its ‘state of the market’ survey commissioned from University of Oxford researchers. The report was the latest to identify the pandemic’s ‘fast forward’ impact on digital working. But it also identified a stark divide between efforts to computerise so-called ‘BigLaw’ and those going in to ‘PeopleLaw’ – essentially, traditional high street firms. One striking finding was that 97% of the funding going in to the burgeoning lawtech sector is in products aimed at BigLaw.

Computer technology, the internet, AI – all have been thought of as something of a lawless space

I. Stephanie Boyce, Law Society

The regulator has long seen a role for itself in correcting the imbalance: one of its 2020?23 strategic priorities is to ‘actively support the adoption of legal technology and other innovation that helps to meet the needs of the public, business community, regulated entities and the economy’. It used publication of the Oxford report to unveil initiatives to promote and build more confidence in lawtech.

It will start by challenging the perception that firms cannot afford new technology by ‘collating and sharing information on the typical costs of technologies and innovations’. Other efforts include a relaunch of the ‘SRA Innovate’ website and bidding for the next slices of funding under the government’s Regulators’ Pioneer Fund. It also announced a partnership with Swansea University – subject to funding approval – to create a ‘virtual innovation hub’ bringing together commercial development, academic research and regulatory activity work ‘to enable cutting-edge legal innovation’.

Perhaps most ambitiously, the SRA also floated the possibility of it endorsing or accrediting lawtech suppliers or systems, saying it is unclear whether standard accreditation services will work for legal products. The regulator ‘will consider’ taking on the job under the banner of its SRA Innovate service.

‘To support and encourage tech developers, we will explore the best way to share a checklist or standards list for innovators. For instance, this could be a guide to the legal, regulatory and industry accreditations that lawtech companies should comply with. The aim of such a standards list would be to help law firms to purchase services from lawtech companies that complied with such standards,’ the SRA statement said.

One likely accreditation standard was announced by the Law Society last week as part of the representative body’s work on lawtech and ethics. This is a set of five guiding principles for lawtech design, development and deployment.

Society president I. Stephanie Boyce announced the principles in a presidential address marking the reopening of 113 Chancery Lane. Boyce described the principles as the culmination of two years of work, including consultations with law firms, developers and regulators. They are:

l Compliance: ‘The design, development and use of lawtech must comply with all applicable regulations.’

l Lawfulness: ‘Lawtech should be underpinned by the rule of law.’

l Capability: ‘Lawtech producers and operators should understand the functionality, benefit, limitations and risks of products used in the course of their work.’

l Transparency: ‘Information on how a lawtech solution has been designed, deployed and used should be accessible for the lawtech operator and for the client.’

l Accountability: ‘Lawtech should have an appropriate level of oversight when used to deliver or provide legal services.’

‘All five of these exist under one overarching principle: that of client care,’ Boyce said. ‘The client should be at the centre of lawtech, determining business requirements and how to consider the other principles in a proportionate way.

‘We hope this will be the first step to digitally transforming the profession in a way which stays true to solicitors’ ethical obligations.’

Overall the idea is that digital legal services will operate to the same ethical standards as those followed by the human profession; they should also provide a more stable and predictable environment for investment and development.

But much depends on the way the principles are monitored and enforced – presumably a decision for a government already struggling with how to regulate internet giants. But it needs doing, Boyce said. ‘Computer technology, the internet, AI – all have been thought of as something of a lawless space at various points. But lawtech – well, that cannot be lawless, by definition.’