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How technology is disrupting the legal sector – to its benefit

Innovative law firms using artificial intelligence to save on cost, time and lawyers

’The bottom line is, in order for a law firm not to be left behind, it needs to innovate.’  Photograph: iStock .

’The bottom line is, in order for a law firm not to be left behind, it needs to innovate.’ Photograph: iStock .


The legal sector, like financial services and the media, is undergoing digital disruption. The difference is that law firms are initiating this disruption themselves.

In October 2018, A&L Goodbody was named the most innovative law firm in Ireland at the Financial Times Innovative Lawyers Awards. The award recognised the firm’s use of technology in providing innovative client solutions – including its use of artificial intelligence (AI) technology in a large criminal-law case .

To meet evolving client needs, A&L Goodbody has committed significant resources to developing practical solutions . For example, ALGorithm is a bespoke due-diligence tool it uses for the sale of large bank-loan portfolios. Additionally, the firm’s in-house legal, project-management and IT teams have come together to develop a homegrown platform which equips both clients and lawyers with real-time data informing them of legal and business decisions, while decreasing costs and time.

A&L Goodbody effectively used AI document analysis, known as technology-assisted review, in criminal investigations, enabling the firm to provide a cost-effective, accurate and compliant solution – which, in one instance, saved a client approximately €1.5 million in administration and legal fees.

“It’s about layering innovation on top of expertise, and finding our own way of delivering new and better services. We talk about it as client tech because it puts the client at the centre of the solutions,” says Charlie Carroll, A&L Goodbody’s client technology partner.

“Traditionally innovation was situated within IT departments, which is difficult because they don’t interact with clients. We decided to set up a separate client tech team .”

A&L Goodbody's innovation has attracted the attention of potential clients, giving them a competitive advantage

Their client tech team has a wide range of staff with a mixture of expertise, from tech and legal skills to business analysts and project managers. New roles are continuously being introduced, including that of the client tech lawyer.

A&L Goodbody’s innovation extends beyond the walls of its own firm, working with both the UCD Sutherland School of Law and Smurfit Business School, to create a master’s degree for its associates. The degree includes a technology module, in the hopes that administrative functions could become automated through technology, leaving more time for lawyers to work on higher-value tasks.

In an increasingly high-pressure market, innovation in the firm has attracted the attention of potential clients, giving A&L a source of competitive advantage. “It is our lawyers’ expertise and the methodology of how we deliver the work that is particularly interesting,” says Carroll.

New developments in technology, such as blockchain or AI applications , are incredibly exciting, but only in situations where they add value to clients. “For our group it’s not about shiny new toys, but about rolling up the sleeves and looking at the data to see what tech solutions could apply,” he adds.

Being innovative and willing to adapt to a capricious market doesn’t lie solely with technology or its advancements. “Innovation is a mindset. It’s not about hiring an engineer or a software developer or using AI. You have to be prepared to do things differently,” says Karyn Harty, partner responsible for innovation at McCann FitzGerald.

Effective innovation appeals not only to clients but also to potential employees. Getting your firm’s innovation right enables it to become a valuable recruitment and retention tool. Joining McCann FitzGerald from Belfast 20 years ago, Harty is proof of this; at the time, she was immediately impressed by the fact that it had so many female and openly gay partners.

The “hybrid” skill sets in the McCann FitzGerald's digital services department are in strong demand in the United States

“Everybody was very comfortable with diversity. We were one of the first to give partners paid maternity leave. That all seems very much the norm now but at the time it was radical,” says Harty. “But we were always prepared to push the envelope. We see technology in the same way. We are willing to use it to change for the benefit of our clients. One thing you’ll never hear here is ‘that’s not the way things are done’. We are always trying to find the better solution.”

McCann FitzGerald has used AI since 2012 – most prominently it invested in improved AI software to aid with due-diligence work for corporate finance and capital markets transactions. The firm pioneered the country’s initial use of technology assisted review, successfully introducing it into a case involving the Irish Bank Resolution Corporation.

Over the past year McCann FitzGerald created a legal technology solutions division, which has teams engaged in project, people and digital services respectively. Known as legal-solutions architects, the digital services department consists of a team of four people with both a legal background and technology skills. Such “hybrid” skill sets are in strong demand in the United States. “If you just throw a software developer at the problem, they don’t understand where you are trying to get to,” Harty explains.

McCann FitzGerald is constantly adding to its own suite of AI-driven applications, including such innovations as its Director Compliance Statement app, which helps companies comply with obligations and reporting requirements under the Companies Act 2014. Specifically, the tool helps companies navigate the complexities of section 225 of the Act, in determining whether or not the business is compliant, generating documentation for the directors’ annual report and providing an audit trail for the mandatory compliance review.

This Director Compliance Statement app is just one part of McCann FitzGerald’s overall approach, known as progressive delivery, to the development of market-leading, innovative solutions for the delivery of legal services. Its GDPR Gap Analysis and Credit Reporting Compliance apps also make up part of this progressive delivery approach. “We are probably quite unusual in having really embraced this,” says Harty. “A lot of firms have been sitting back to see what would transpire, in the hope that it would be a fad and that they could just go back to doing things the way they have always done them. But it’s not a fad and it’s not going away.”