By Steven De Backer
Covid-19 is accelerating the rise of technology and innovation, not just in Africa, but globally. At Afriwise, we have almost 3000 lawyers in our network from across the continent and actively work with over 100 law firms. I speak with many of them frequently and over the last 12 months, I have heard remarkable examples of firms harnessing innovative technology to respond to challenges presented by the pandemic.
In 2020, we ran a survey focused on legal tech, where well over 100 African law firms participated. They indicated overwhelmingly that Covid-19 had had an instant impact on their services and technology use. Interestingly, we found that 53% of law firms, including smaller ones, had made steps to technologize operations; with many having multiple tech platforms in place prior to the pandemic; they were just not utilising them properly. The pandemic forced the hand of even the most old-school lawyers to adopt legal-tech solutions. Given that prompting employees to start using new systems is the greatest challenge, there are already discernible shifts in law firm operations as a change of mindset has been necessitated across the board.
However, while Covid-19 has triggered something in the market, there is still work to be done in the African legal-tech ecosystem.
From a corporate-law perspective, I think it is inevitable that law firms are going to rapidly continue to automate, digitise and innovate. There is a common misconception that Africa is somehow “backward” when it comes to technological advancement. However, I believe, as do a number of lawyers we work with, that some countries – including Nigeria and Kenya – have the potential to leapfrog higher-income countries and international firms in their use and adoption of technology to provide legal services. This should come as no surprise as these firms are not so much restricted by legacy systems and internal bureaucracy. But, more importantly, this could be driven by the specific African legal and business context. It is increasingly acknowledged that economic growth will come from SMEs. Therefore, law firms know they must look for ways to service these businesses better and more affordably. For the last two to three years, some firms have been all too aware of this and also that digitisation of legal tech will allow them to service all clients quicker at lower cost. This has meant they are storming ahead and, arguably, starting to gain a competitive advantage. Coupled with the impact of Covid-19, this has created a perfect storm. Indeed, today, across the continent, all law firms are striving, in one way or another, to harness technology and innovate as they know they have to catch up in order to remain competitive. When I speak to legal tech providers active in areas such as document automation, knowledge management or text mining, I’m surprised to hear how many law firm clients they have in Africa these days.
Interestingly, this tech drive is not only being led internally. Late last year, we also ran a survey for in-house counsel. 67.9% of in-house counsel wanted the law firms they worked with on the continent to adopt new technologies, and they expect them to do so in the coming years. The message is clear – if you don’t innovate or embrace legal tech, you will be left behind.
Of course, it is important to not allow conversations around legal tech to just focus on corporate law. Law in Africa is expensive, and, in a lot of countries, large swathes of the population still have no basic access to it. In this sense, technology presents an immeasurable opportunity to benefit the wider populations. Younger generations, along with more progressive legislators, are moving their core legal texts online, but some specialised areas are still difficult to find. It is not uncommon to find that some important areas of law are not published online at all. Businesses and SMEs instruct legal counsel to provide this information, but the majority of the population are in no financial position to do this. Put simply, access to law and justice remains a competitive advantage. Targeting this must become a priority and could well be where we will see the most activity over the coming years.
Recently, on a trip to Rwanda, I witnessed an exciting insight into how this might look. The 321 service, a collaboration between Viamo and the Rwanda Legal Aid Forum, is an Interactive Voice Response (IVR) powered hotline accessible to anyone in the country. It allows the user to call through and voice their legal query on their mobile. The user is then given a solution/answer to their query immediately. When I trialled this, the artificial intelligence driven voice recording informed me “go to a pro bono lawyer”. It then recommended which lawyer I should contact. This sort of legal-tech that creates equitable access to the law for everyone will have beneficial country-wide implications.
One final loop that needs to be closed is modernising courts and government registries. Here, some progress has been made – often the technology is there but not fully embraced. It is not clear yet if Covid-19 has had an impact; we know that many courts went online during lockdowns last year. Yet, we also know that business processes were severely delayed in all countries, including South Africa, as registry processes had not been fully automated, and there is no remote filing capability in some countries. In cases where registries are fully online, for example in Kenya, where the collateral registry for certain types of security is fully digital, there is a drastic improvement for business processes. This transition to fully automated filing processes will also play a huge role in stamping out bureaucracy and corruption. Until governments follow suit and invest time and money in ensuring that this happens, there will not be a perfect legal tech ecosystem in Africa.
We are certainly living in an exciting time, where digital transformation has imminent potential to disrupt the legal sector in Africa. And, we must not forget, this is not just about the legal sector, but the wider business environment. If over the next five years countries can close the digital gap across legal services delivery – this would accelerate business-environment improvement in Africa, perhaps more so than any other single factor.
Steven De Backer is founder and CEO of Afriwise, which is a unique collaboration among law firms across Africa.