How is technology shaping the legal landscape? An interview with Rob Aberdein

Core-Asset Consulting - 14-Oct-2020


AS ONE of Scotland’s most progressive lawyers – and an accredited legal technologist – Rob Aberdein is as well placed as anybody to comment on how cutting-edge advancements are shaping the profession.

So what’s on the horizon - and what will be the long-term impact of Covid-19, which has triggered a rush to embrace new tech platforms?

Following the recent high-profile launch of Aberdeins, a technology-driven professional services group that has its sights set on “disrupting the Scottish legal scene”, our Director of Financial and Professional Services, Louise Powrie, caught up with Rob.

Louise: As technology becomes an integral part of law, what have been the key recent advancements in areas such as AI that have caught your eye - and how are these set to benefit the profession, if they aren't already doing so?

Rob: The most exciting thing isn’t actually a single thing, rather the direction of travel.

To my mind, the really exciting breakthroughs haven’t quite hit us yet, but they aren’t far away. If you look to the US you see some of the big data that the top litigation firms are using to give them intelligence to make smarter decisions. They’re using platforms that give them instant in-depth research that would otherwise take hundreds of hours, or be undreamt of entirely.

Naturally this level of tech is still prohibitively expensive and for that reason isn’t reaching mid-level Scottish firms.

But beyond that there are still very few firms in Scotland using the tech that is accessible in a truly smart way, to improve case management, workflows, document creation.

Where firms are picking up the mantle, it is often with younger more tech-savvy lawyers finally reaching a point of influence within their organisations.

What we need now, to speed up an adoption of tech, is senior partners realising that they need to invest at the front end, or face being left behind. We’ve reached a tipping point - and those that have so far benefited from the status quo can’t be fearful of tech, or see it as something that will strip power or relevance.

Louise: What have been positives and negatives of the impact of technology on the day to day tasks of a lawyer or paralegal and have they actually made these individuals' jobs more or less productive?

Rob: I really struggle to see the negatives, I only ever see tech as an enabler. We’re not on the brink of an Orwellian scenario, the end of days or Terminator 2!

In its simplest sense, it should mean that data captured once should never need retyped or reformatted. It should encourage and enable everyone: secretaries, paralegals, partners, to work at a higher level, ridding us all of those dumb, repetitive tasks that still permeate the profession.

We should try not to see it as a threat. Yes, it may force many people out of comfort zones but it will elevate the best, so that they can be problem solvers. Fixers rather than processors.

For instance, smart speech transcription software will help the best secretaries add value in different ways, many may become paralegals.

Louise: In terms of AI being potentially able to automate a lot of tasks a lawyer or paralegal currently undertakes in the next 10 to 20 years, what impact do you envisage this will have on the wider legal profession in terms of hiring and existing headcount?

Rob: Of course I’m not blind or unsympathetic to the reality that there may be a long term reduction in headcounts, but I think it may be less of a factor in law than in many other professional service sectors.

The bigger thing will be a shift in the ecosystem, a changing profile of a successful law firm. Lawyers will often need to become legal technologists and we’ll need more coders, cyber security experts and all-round IT people. I see my software development team being the fastest growing part of Aberdeins.

From my own experience, the more mature operators that do give tech a shot often become the biggest evangelists. So I hope that this can happen more in Scotland and we reduce roadblocks, so that our mid-level and private client firms can get ahead of the curve.

In terms of hiring I’m already there. A typical interview used to comprise a bit of chat on academia, relevant experience, personal qualities, that’d be it. What I’m interested in is an interest and aptitude for working with tech.

I’m aware enough to realise that it won’t be me making the big breakthroughs with tech on a day to day level. It’ll be those paralegals who are able to question the status quo. To use a “chocolate box” of applications in newer, smarter ways. It’s really exciting to me.

The days of training people that “this is how you sell a house” or “this is how you buy a company” are a thing of the past. Instead it should be the software or hardware first.

This might sound idealistic, but everyone wins when staff are comfortable with smart tech. Clients can get a much faster, more cost-efficient service, while law firms are more profitable at the same time, which let’s be honest, is what we’re all striving for.

Louise: What areas of specialism and what particular roles within the profession do you see being most impacted by the advancement of technology - what will this do to the number and quality of roles in this field?

Rob: Litigation is an area where some of the most exciting developments are being made. We’re seeing the US investing and adopting tech that utilises data and historic precedence. They are able to model and analyse likely outcomes long before stepping into a courtroom.

It means fewer cases destined to lose are being taken to courts as there is a much better understanding of the risk reward. By being more selective, clients, in theory, are getting much better value while lawyers with improved track records command higher fees.

Likewise in more transactional specialisms, clever coding is transforming the day to day work. Conveyancing is almost there but it will still advance further. I can see commercial leases becoming much more systemised too in the near future.

There’ll still always be a home for dealmaking and the people element. There is only so much you can do with family law for instance. The soft skills of the best family lawyers will always be valued. Likewise with some of the more contentious areas of employment law, they need that human interaction, empathy and understanding.

It’s not straightforward to predict what will happen within separate specialisms as they will all be impacted differently as tech develops.

One thing I can confidently predict however, is that we will likely see is new specialisms emerge, or niche specialisms become mainstream. Just look at cyber security, which 10 years ago was such a marginal subject, but as data becomes more and more invaluable, is going to continue to be a big growth area. It was like the introduction of IT IP lawyers several decades ago early into networks and the internet.

No doubt there will be new specialisms emerging that we haven’t even though of yet.

Louise: With the impact of covid 19 accelerating firms' moves towards digitisation and more remote working, how do think this has affected things such as staff development, productivity and mentoring?

Rob: Lots of people have loved work from home. No wonder - less commuting on sweaty trains, reduced costs, no parking issues. There is a definite desire to get back into the office but it’s impossible to think we’ll go back to how we were.

That said, people miss camaraderie and even as a huge tech fan I realise that in-person relationship and team building can’t be fully replicated remotely. It’s the chats over the photocopier, the small throwaway interactions that really build teams.

Let’s hope we can get back to offices safely, soon, even in some capacity. I think back to my own development and as much of it was through osmosis as it was direct training. The best thing for a young lawyer’s development is for them to sit in an open plan office with their ears and eyes open, soaking stuff up.

For me, tracked changes were always disheartening at the time, but I learned through the immediacy of the office and the feedback over the desks going through those amends. We can do so much online, but real mentoring is always best in the flesh.

All in all, it would seem the blended approach will be a winner for most firms and staff, so we can all experience the benefits of both.

Everyone is different too. I’ve read a lot about how the culture of so many firms has been so limiting for women in particular, who are simply expected to juggle home lives and their careers in ways men, quite unfairly, so often don’t.

Earlier in the pandemic we saw women taking on a lot more of the domestic burden. Hopefully a blended model and a renewed respect for homeworking can begin to right some of those wrongs and improve the performance of the sector as a result.

In the short to medium term I can’t see the big Glasgow or Edinburgh firms making drastic cuts to their square footage, as they will realise the majority want some form of separation between home and work.

Homeworking will be with us for ever more. You’d think that young lawyers coming through will opt for the firm offering an element of flexibility over the firm with the old-fashioned, entrenched view.

Louise: Driven by the pandemic, our clients are now using technology by adopting tools such as Zoom and MS Teams to carry out interviews. What have been the advantages and disadvantages of hiring staff virtually and what tools or processes would you suggest adopting to make sure you identify individuals that are the best fit for a firm both culturally and technically?

Rob: I’ve been hiring staff remotely long before Covid-19, working in multi-site businesses around the world. Virtual interviews are always something I’ve done when face-to-face isn’t possible.

It’s pretty good and most of the time can be as effective. As a hirer, I’d say for 90% of roles you can do it virtually and be content with the process.

What you do miss is the subtle things you pick up on, almost subconsciously. It’s the emotional intelligence, the million things we’re analysing as human beings. I trust those instincts enough that I wouldn’t want to do a big senior hire without that second “in the room” interview.

In terms of tools to help us hire better, I realise that most regional firms won’t spend the megabucks that global firms will in analysing recruitment and HR. But I really like Insights Discovery. I had it used on me and have used it since. In essence it’s similar to psychometric testing, but it gives a clear and accurate understanding of a person’s true personality, their strengths and weaknesses based on the data of millions of other people.

That sort of data profiling is only going to grow in demand – and paired with a good interview technique helps ensure you are hiring somebody who is culturally and technically right, not just great for 45 minutes answering your questions.


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