The unstoppable technological disruption of the legal sector will force firms to emerge from the veil of secrecy into a new era of transparency and openness, says Dominic Zammit, Head of Digital at global brand consultancy Industry.
Here Dominic explains what the law firm of 2026 will look like, what will keep some ahead of others, and how technology is at the forefront of change in years to come.
It’s perhaps not surprising that the legal sector has so far held out against the kind of transformative change driven by new technology in other sectors such as banking and finance. Traditional in nature and reassuringly invested in the status quo, there has been some reluctance so far to adopt new technologies that could revolutionise the way legal practices work.
This is starting to change. Research by Fox Williams and Byfield Consultancy earlier this year showed that 83% of top UK law firms believe technology has the greatest potential to increase profitability. In the past year, 55% had invested more than £100k in new tech. That’s significant. But cultural change is needed as well as cash investment; a willingness to disrupt the status quo, remove the shroud of mystery, be open and transparent, and let clients see exactly where and how their fees are being spent.
The technological juggernaut is unstoppable. As the lines between home and work, personal and professional, become increasingly blurred, B2B companies find themselves playing catch up to the B2C tech trailblazers. After all, why shouldn’t the service we receive from our law firm be as slick as the service we receive from Amazon?
Law firms today face a stark choice. Invest now in being an early adopter. Separate yourselves from the competition, dare to be leaders, offering a new, different and better way of working that sets you apart from your peers. Or play catch up, risking cherished client relationships that are no longer guaranteed.
This presents a huge opportunity to players in the sector. Now is the time to position your brand as pioneering, innovative, a market leader, as well as to create an identity that is agile and scalable, that breathes the corporate brand as effectively in an augmented reality app interface as it does on a letterhead.
So what technology should firms invest in that will actually help them do their jobs, now and in the future? To answer that question, let’s peer ten years into the future and see how the legal landscape lies in 2026.
Highly efficient and agile virtual meetings
Firstly, the client meeting. Traditionally arduous, currently conducted either in person or over telecom/video conference from the office. By 2026, firms will use a combination of virtual reality (VR) and artificial intelligence (AI) to deliver a highly efficient and agile meeting experience, without compromising on the environment.
Participants will join in flexibly from home, the office or elsewhere, using VR hardware (which will by now be commoditised and affordable). They will enter a branded virtual meeting room, styled to the firm’s templates, with its proprietary AI system plugged in and performing a set of peripheral activities to ensure absolute efficiency during and after the meeting.
Since the billable hour is dead, it will record the session for tracking against client records, enabling it to accurately forecast costs for the next fixed fee project. It will track client concerns and recurring topics to feed into the firm’s knowledge management and legal prediction hub. Questions and scenarios will be monitored, delivering real time solutions to the partner based on a combination of the firm’s knowledge bank and its own machine learning.
Welcome to your client room
Client relationships will be managed online through dedicated client rooms, built within the firm’s proprietary practice management hub. These are effectively online portals where clients can see exactly what’s going on, including the real time tracking of work, pulled in from the firm’s time-tracking software. All financial information will be there in black and white, including payment facilities and Bitcoin exchange.
The client room will be the key point of transaction, collaboration and communication with the firm and will provide a real-time and transparent view of the overall relationship and individual matters. Legal practice won’t be so mysterious, there will be no fudging of fees. Clients will see exactly what has been done, how long it look and what it cost.
Real time consumer trends affecting client business lines will be drawn from the firm’s big data solution, enabling firms to identify macro trends that will affect their client’s business and help them to futureproof.
Real time, not 6 minute slots
Legal services in 2026 are commoditised and pre-priced based on big data predictions. Client reporting on time is automated, tracked through each lawyer’s tablet or, more likely, wearable device.
Time tracking software will be device agnostic, linking all portable, wearable and static devices to track lawyer activity across the board. Clients can now see, from any device, what each member of the legal team is working on at any one time, with lawyer efficiency monitored by a smart algorithm combining time spent and tangible outputs, feeding into the firm’s ongoing appraisal and remuneration process.
Client apps will herald an era of collaboration
In 2026 client apps will combine firm data, artificial intelligence and elements of augmented and virtual reality to meet client needs. Apps will enable clients to work collaboratively with their lawyers, using cameras on their devices to stream real-time footage into the app, carry out live risk assessments that, when combined with an AR overlay, highlight and record key risks on screen.
Drawing on existing firm data and AI machine learning, apps will deliver real time advice to the client, contact and engage the relationship manager and all necessary third parties, including insurers, authorities and even emergency services.
The legal workhorse
Over the next decade technology will play a lead role in helping firms achieve greater productivity, drive growth through greater efficiency and improve accuracy. Typical work undertaken by legal professionals will have undergone a diametric shift, with AI bearing the burden of process-heavy tasks such as due diligence, research, contract reviews and document production.
Human time will be focused on strategic, commercial and risk related matters, leveraging the firm’s proprietary data and systems to forecast opportunities for clients and protect against risks.
A proportion of time will be dedicated to training, enhancing and feeding information into the firm’s AI platform. These systems are only as good as the time and effort put into augmenting the machine learning process with human knowledge.
As business development time is now encouraged and measured, so too will AI time be part of the daily routine, with lawyers dedicating chunks of their working week to feeding the AI systems they now depend upon, with information.
Firms need to invest not just in the tech, but in the skills too. Expect to see Data Scientist and Apps Specialist on every team sheet.
There’s no doubt that the widening gap between legal fees (expected to exceed £1,000 per hour this year in top London firms) and the price most companies can afford to pay, makes the profession ripe for ‘Uberisation’, or transformative change. Technology already in its infancy can go far beyond digitising routine processes, to undertaking complex work, effectively automating legal advice.
October 2016 heralded the birth of Legal Geek, the world’s first LegalTech start-up conference, bringing together a new generation of tech influencers out to disrupt the legal sector. I have no doubt they will succeed. Ultimately, failure to act now will hinder a firm’s ability to compete on price or speed of work, against small, nimble LegalTech companies built on agility, efficiency and transparency. They risk being seen as slow, irrelevant, out of date and out of touch. This sends the wrong signal and may raise other doubts about the business. Do they understand the risks posed to me and my business? Do they employ bright young graduates? Are they up to speed with current trends and legislation?
In an industry where everyone has broadly the same professional qualifications, being different is challenging. Those that are quick to adopt new technology, invest in new practices and bring about cultural change within their firms, have a golden opportunity to position themselves as pioneers, stepping out ahead of the pack. Think of Amazon, Uber, Air BnB. Learn from the B2C sector and accept that there’s no hiding from the technological revolution impacting every aspect of our personal and professional lives. Futureproof yourselves.