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Making space for a human experience of law

I first got interested in the impact of digital transformation on the legal sector back in 2017. I started my professional life as a barrister and I believe passionately in the rule of law, but I’m not a technologist. For more than 20 years I have been a specialist in continuous learning and a business psychologist. I do use digital media in my work, but like many people, I find tech a bit mind-bending.

Human Connection in the Legal Sector

What intrigued me was the direction of travel I observed in terms of the legal sector. Beneath the noise of product launches, I could see the potential for a shift away from a traditional, paternalistic approach to law and towards something more connected to people, more human both for the lawyer and the client.

I have been fascinated by human stories all my life. I studied History at university, and later did an MA in English Literature. After I qualified as a barrister, I did legally aided work in crime and family. My intention has always been to help people to navigate the experience of being caught up in often life-altering legal proceedings.

A Focus on Client Experience (CX)

I used to think that, having been a barrister, my version of client experience, or “CX”, was removed from that of my colleagues in law firms. Now I realise, that the moment at which the law intersects with the course of people’s lives and the way that people experience that moment is CX. Fundamentally, the context does not matter. CX can be manifest in a quantity surveyor’s efforts to hold a supplier to account for lateness, or a colleague in sales who needs the be able to explain why liability is limited in some respect.

It happens that my version of CX was telling the sober lad who finally got the girl, the job and the home, but kicked someone’s head in when the pubs closed six months ago, that the price of his actions is likely to be going to prison and losing it all. Or, telling a young mum that her new boyfriend might say he loves her, but he knocks her about and told the Welfare Officer to F-Off, so the court is likely to decide her 6 year old should live with her ex 200 miles away. Its all a form of CX.

There is one big difference: the idea of CX today is inextricably bound up in the use of digital resources. The term comes from “user experience” referring to how realistic or seamless a digital service or online game feels to the consumer. That idea simply did not exist in the late 1990s when I was in practice.

Is the idea of CX a good thing? I think it can be. One might have huge reservations about the potential for over simplification and “dumbing down” of law but resistance is futile. The big players – and I mean the Amazons and Googles of the world – have made user experience their MO. (In time, they will turn their attention to the law in some way or another.) More to the point, they have educated us all to regard the use of digital resources as the way to access services.

The challenge is to embrace the potential of digital services and use them well so that we can sustain a robust and accessible legal system. In all honesty, there are good reasons why this change could be for the better. I have three reasons for saying that:

Closing the Gap Between Client Needs and Services:

Firstly, I founded my business, Athena Professional, in 2013 when the Legal Services Board had just published a survey of over 9000 SME businesses in which only 13% said they thought that lawyers provided a cost-effective solution to their problems.

I thought, naively, that I could support lawyers to develop their own emotional intelligence and communicate more effectively it would help them connect with their clients’ needs. The expectation more widely was that the dial would shift on those numbers and more clients could have a positive experience of the law. In the LSB’s fourth survey of SME legal needs, published in April 2022, 10% of SMEs said that lawyers provided a cost effective solution to their problems. Clearly, there is a gap between the opportunity to meet client need and the services on offer amongst at least one client group.

Addressing Lawyer Fatigue

Secondly, when I started to work with lawyers I noticed that they were often exhausted, running to stand still. The tempo of legal practice had changed since the mid-80s when I had first helped out on reception in the firm where my dad was a partner. It had always been intense, but there had been a certain gravitas accorded to the process which allowed for breathing space. Plus, the tech simply did not exist to speed everything up.

The overall sense I often get from lawyers is that they can’t do enough in the day. Their feeling is that they are constantly serving clients, doing their utmost to give them a good experience. My take on this is that we have been living through the precursor to automation. In the last twenty years lawyers have increasingly been doing their work in a process-driven way. This has not reduced their effort; it has increased it by volume, not necessarily quality.

Those people are exhausted, caught in the pinch-point between traditional legal practice and digitalisation. Add an on-going pandemic to the mix and the human cost of this shift is significant. There has been no let up for law firms or the people in them. The initial navigation of crisis has morphed into a in-flux of post-lockdown work. So there is definitely “jam today”, as well as some overworked lawyers.

Combating Anti-Law and Anti-Lawyer Rhetoric

My third and final observation is that over the last 10 years, added to these layers of client need and lawyer fatigue, an anti-law and anti-lawyer rhetoric has emerged which I find alarming. I am the first to accept that there is much that needs to be done to improve access to justice. Standards of practice can fail in spectacular and disappointing ways (see the Post Office Scandal, for example). Yet I will defend the significant merits of our judicial system and many of the people who work in it. An attack on one judge or lawyer is an attack on the profession.

The separation of powers is fundamental to our constitutional settlement. There is no room for complacency: our judiciary is still not diverse enough and our criminal courts are on their knees, to name only two areas in need of attention. For me, this is a spur for every lawyer to put the rule of law at the heart of their practice. In the context of our times this means, in addition to the day job, owning the idea of CX with all its digital implications.

Embracing Change in the Legal Profession

In the UK we know that an economic downturn is on the cards. In the legal sector there is plenty of work at present. And, finding the will to invest and the capacity to create and embrace new ways of working has never been more important to the sustaining firms in the future, to their clients and the wider community.

There is jam today, and with the right mindset and investment there can be jam tomorrow. In the past five years I have become caught up in this era of change, noticing what’s going on and working to help lawyers to become the authors of their own futures. “Sameness” is for the birds now. We have shifted away from traditional, paternalistic legal practice. These are exciting times.

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