As MoJ invests £2m in legal tech we need to fixate on details not ideals

There was much excitement in the legal and business press on Monday 4 November because the Ministry of Justice has awarded £2m to a company that (not meaning to be rude) I’ve never heard of to support the development and use of technology in the UK legal sector.

“Tech Nation will embrace the opportunities of lawtech, drive innovation and help the sector grow,” a statement said yesterday. Adding: “An ambitious vision and series of projects will be delivered through a three-year programme.”

Justice Secretary, Robert Buckland QC MP, said: “This funding will help support the development and use of UK lawtech, boost wider economic growth and pave the way for a technological revolution in the UK legal sector.” No pressure then.

How will it achieve these ambitious goals? “Tech Nation will be responsible for driving forward and building on the work of the Lawtech Delivery Panel, an industry-led body designed to promote and champion the use of technology in the UK’s legal sector,” said the statement.

The panel, announced by the Lord Chancellor in 2018, brings together senior figures from “industry, government, academia, judiciary, regulators and the legal technology community” to address challenges and seize opportunities.

The core members are:

Christina Blacklaws, Former president of the Law Society, now NED at Mason and Cook
Rt Hon Lord Keen of Elie QC, Justice Minister
Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey Vos, Chancellor of the High Court
Professor Richard Susskind, Technology Advisor to the Lord Chief Justice
Dr Anna Donovan, University College London
Rosemary Martin, General Counsel, Vodafone
Gary Campkin, TheCityUK
Sonya Branch, General Counsel, Bank of England

Jennifer Swallow, former general counsel at financial service TransferWise will lead the panel.

While the panel includes some of the best-known and respected names in the industry, I would like to see more rounded stakeholder representation from vendors, CIOs and others actively involved at the coalface.

It has been difficult to ascertain if that is on the roadmap: many of the panel are currently travelling the globe and reaching them for more detail about the new fund has been a challenge, but responding from St Petersburg, Blacklaws told me: “The £2m has been allocated as an innovation grant by the MoJ to Tech Nation to support the digital transformation of the UK legal services sector to deliver what society and the economy needs from legal services, and to create a climate to support the development and use of UK lawtech.

“A small part of this funding will be used to establish an Executive Delivery Function (EDF) for the Lawtech Delivery Panel led by Jennifer Swallow.

“The EDF will work closely with the LTDP to prioritise areas of focus to support the digital transformation of the UK legal services sector through targeted initiatives, which is where the majority of the funding will be allocated.”

Tech Nation CEO, Gerard Grech said in the statement out yesterday: “The legal services sector is a major contributor to the UK economy, contributing around £25 billion annually. Emerging technologies are transforming legal services, while investment in UK lawtech has tripled in the last year alone.”

“We look forward to working with the LawTech Delivery Panel’s distinguished members, tech entrepreneurs, the Ministry of Justice and the wider ecosystem to grow this sector.”

Tech Nation wasn’t immediately available to clarify any of the finer details as to how the fund will work. However, this seems like a fitting moment to repeat the observations of Chris Holder, a partner at Bristows who has worked in the IT sector since the 90s (and can be trusted to debunk most legaltech nonsense) who observed: “It looks like [the MoJ has] contracted with Tech Nation to coordinate the general ‘feel good’ factor behind legaltech, the industry. That seems to me to be a good thing. If, as a country, we are going to take technology seriously, then we should put UK Gov weight and money behind the expansion of new tech industries and legaltech is one of these.”

There’s no doubt that the legal sector is rightly gaining recognition for its potential to enhance the competitiveness of the UK. It is exciting that it is gaining investment and let’s not forget the funding that Oxford University has received among other grants, including those from Innovate UK. Plus in due course more details around this £2m funding will no doubt be shared.

But there are very real practical issues that stand in the way of technological ‘innovation’ and speaking at Barclays New Frontiers this week, Crowd Justice founder and CEO Julia Salasky hit the nail on the head when she said that what is stopping change is the way the industry is structured commenting: “Pilots don’t run airlines.” This accords with the message I am giving in a talk on Thursday to a group of corporates at the SOLID summit on innovation and disruption, where I will ask them to challenge their law firms not on what technology they have but how they are creating the space in which they can genuinely collaborate and innovate.

Speaking to me about the £2m fund, Derek Southall, founder and CEO of Hyperscale Group said: “It is great to see the law tech sector receiving investment and being taken seriously given its potential.” Southall is particularly a fan of the fact that Tech Nation will be working with the LTDP, tech entrepreneurs, the MoJ and wider ecosystem.

However he added: “It is vital that all research like this casts its net really wide to get the views of all key stakeholders in the legal tech ecosystem, whether they be law firms, ALSPs, Suppliers, start ups, in house teams, CIOs, Innovation leads or more – has recently been consulted by a couple of significant research projects which is a really positive step as they immediately gain the views of people working in the thick of the industry with years of practical experience. At the risk of stating the obvious here is a global battle underway to become the world’s centre for Legal Tech  – it is hugely important that we get this right. I for one want the UK to seize the moment.”

I couldn’t agree more.