Using technology in law firms in Africa

Being a good lawyer is no longer enough. In uncertain times, and an increasingly complex world, the market has begun demanding a new pace and scale of doing business.

In the past 18 months in particular, businesses in Africa have begun to demand legal services and products that allow them to finalise deals across numerous borders with vastly different legal systems, as quickly and efficiently as possible

Morne van der Merwe, Managing Partner of global law firm Baker McKenzie in Johannesburg, said, “Our clients expect that when we are working on transactions in Africa, there will be a fluent service across all our offices and relationship firms in Africa and that we will work as one team. As part of a global law firm, they also expect us have access to the best technology, such as document automation, contract analytics and expert systems. Access to this innovative technology has made a huge difference to the speed and efficiency with which we can help clients across borders in Africa and this has made us extremely competitive,” he says.

Darryl Bernstein, Partner and Head of the Disputes team at Baker McKenzie in Johannesburg said that law firms were becoming increasingly futuristic as they adapted to client needs.

“There is no doubt that the ways in which law firms deliver their services are changing and I think that rapid advancements in tools, technology and ways of working constitute a huge opportunity for lawyers and their clients to partner in exciting and innovative ways,” he explained.

Ben Allgrove,  Partner in London and Global Partner in Charge of Research and Development at Baker McKenzie, told lawyers from across Africa at the firm’s recent African Relationship Firms conference in Johannesburg, that the firm’s global innovation framework was focused on re-designing how it delivers legal advice in a way that made sense to its clients.

“Rather than trying figure out what our clients want, we ask them and then build it with them. Founded in the methodology of design thinking, each new service we take to market has been co-created with our clients. Through multiple rounds of research interviews with our clients we map their needs, elicit their ideas and test prototype new services that serve those needs and preferences,” Allgrove said.

This has lead to the implementation of a global e-discovery and investigations platform, capable of applying current Automated and Artificial Intelligence tools for due diligence, contracts, e-discovery and any practice for which such technologies can ensure the best efficiency.  It provides a common platform for clients around the world and is able to dramatically reduce lawyer time on transactions, while improving the insight, judgement and predictability of outcomes clients expect from their legal advisors. The firm also employs a contract analytics tool which applies machine learning and natural language processing technology to extract data from contracts. This tool speeds up due diligence exercises and clients are able to get quick insights from large suites of contracts and achieve greater cost efficiency as a result. Tools such as these can enable the effective implementation of multinational projects spanning 60 or 70 countries at a time at a surprisingly rapid pace.

“However, technology itself is not enough; more efficient service delivery also means improving the firm’s processes across the business and we are driving this change through fostering collaboration among our lawyers, project managers, process engineers and others,” noted Allgrove.

“For example, our professional and business services teams in our service centres meet regularly in think tanks to brainstorm ideas and then project teams execute the improvements. Globally we have saved more than 25,000 manual hours by doing this and counting.  In addition, our legal project managers around the globe work on matters to similarly identify efficiencies, track budgets and reduce costs.

“Yet,  the world is currently facing challenges far beyond the ability of one organisation to solve alone. To find solutions to global challenges, it has become critical to collaborate, share expertise, learn from others and contribute. The power of change lies in using multi-disciplinary teams to solve problems that breach borders and industries. We have seen it in action in the firm’s own innovation hubs like the Whitespace Collab in Toronto that brings together academic, business, legal and technical expertise to solve common problems; and in the firm’s partnership with the World Economic Forum’s new innovation hub in San Francisco – the ‘Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution ‘. This hub aims to ensure that not only is the firm adapting to meet the new needs of clients, but that we are all participants in the discussion to harness innovation that is in the public interest.

“The firm is continuing to look for ways to engage with the wider ecosystem and as such we hope an African innovation hub will be opened in the future,” said Allgrove.

Allgrove noted that in order to ready the firm to become the law firm of the future, its Machine Learning Taskforce has a brief to understand and monitor where technology is heading in next few years and to make sure the firm is prepared for the opportunities that will present themselves.

“What we have found is that Search and Find tech is most developed, with Task Automation and Presentation/Delivery tools fast improving.

Law firms of the future are heading for a world around machine learning, where a challenge that has been identified by humans, will be validated by machinery. One of the challenges of implementing machine learning, however, is the issue around legal privilege, which exists between a client and a lawyer but not between a client and a machine. This is an area of law that needs to be addressed. Another challenge is having to train lawyers to be able to operate in the new world with new technology, tools and infrastructure.

“It’s not just a change in infrastructure and technology, innovation is a culture change for lawyers as well, they need to adapt to life in the law firm of the future,” he said.

Allgrove added that there had already been much talk about the imminent arrival of the robot lawyer but said that after continuous testing, they were currently still getting better results from human lawyers.

“The robot lawyer is coming, but I think that what lawyers do won’t ever change. How they deliver their service, however, is already changing rapidly, whether they are in Africa or any other part of the world.I think that technology will help to create a new breed of New Lawyers, rather than making them obsolete. For those who can find ways to use AI to augment talent, not replace it, I believe the future is very bright indeed,” Allgrove adds. 

About Baker McKenzie

Baker McKenzie helps clients overcome the challenges of competing in the global economy. We solve complex legal problems across borders and practice areas. Our unique culture, developed over 65 years, enables our 13,000 people to understand local markets and navigate multiple jurisdictions, working together as trusted colleagues and friends to instil confidence in our clients.


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