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Lawyers with even half an eye on the future know that robots are heading for their workplaces. Not only is the effect likely to be profound on jobs but also on who it is that lawyers work with. Technology is presenting lawyers with new kinds of partnerships and collaborations as they pool resources and exchange insights.

In some cases, the joint ventures are an evolution of law firms and clients working together. In others, the partnerships are between law firms and organisations that might be considered rivals.

For Dan Wright, a partner at Osborne Clarke, a change of job enabled a new way of working with clients. “We didn’t always sell what our clients wanted to buy,” he says. “We just sold what we’d always sold and often clients had to re-engineer it within their legal departments.”

Working with Vodafone — which wanted to transform the way it managed and executed its property legal work internally — Osborne Clarke created a bespoke cloud-based online platform that allows the telecoms company to instruct, manage and execute all the litigation and transactional work related to its properties in England and Wales. These range from masts to shops, data centres and offices.

“Law firms need to get their heads round a different model,” Mr Wright says. “We’re not always selling the delivery of legal services — we’re selling the delivery of enabling and consulting services with a legal backbone. But that positions us for a much broader, longer-term relationship.”

Similarly, the potential to harness technology sparked a collaboration between law firm Addleshaw Goddard and the legal team of Wolseley UK, the building materials group. They developed an online portal on which to host and summarise completed contracts and a tool that uses algorithms to calculate the risks in a contract, such as poor customer credit ratings or uncapped amounts for damages.

The joint work was mutually beneficial, says Mike Potter, a partner and head of the transaction services team at Addleshaw Goddard. For the firm, a better insight into a client’s needs gives it an edge when pitching for work. “Having an in-house team willing to share their challenges with us is like gold dust for us,” he says. As for Wolseley’s legal team, “they don’t have the resources to test new technology all the time, so they want us to come in and show them what’s happening”, he says.

Jointly grappling with questions of how to benefit from developments in technology strengthens the relationship, says Mr Potter. “We’re then sharing with Wolseley how our use of tech is evolving and bouncing ideas off them if we have new products, even in a beta version,” he says.

But should lawyers worry about helping in-house teams to do more of the work themselves? This would be a problem, says Mr Wright, only if the volume of legal work remained the same. “But the market can’t ignore the fact that in-house teams can execute more themselves,” he says. Instead, law firms can provide the services that enable in-house teams to take on more legal work, Mr Wright says. “If you’re going to be disrupted, disrupt yourself.”

To collaborate with a client is one thing, but to work with a potential rival is another. One such partnership involves two professional services organisations, law firm Allen & Overy and Deloitte, one of the “big four” accounting firms.

In 2016, Allen & Overy joined forces with Deloitte’s Belfast-based data science team to apply machine learning to the process of extracting the right data from immense volumes of legal documents. While the two firms had worked together before, Jonathan Brayne, an Allen & Overy partner, acknowledges that they also compete in some areas.

Law firms are offering more consulting services and consultancies are becoming more adept at legal work. At the same time, however, both sectors want to harness technology. It is a matter of “trust that we have our strengths and they have theirs”, Mr Brayne says.

Danny McConnell, a partner who leads Deloitte’s tech consulting business in Northern Ireland, says: “The legal domain expertise is something we don’t have, and from our side, we have a growing data science capability.”

He stresses the need in such projects for open-minded, creative individuals, particularly because of the exploratory nature of the work. “This hasn’t been done before and things do go wrong,” he says. “You have to have a personality type that’s going to look outside their comfort zone and explore different ways of doing things.”

Schillings and the Children’s Commissioner

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While children and young people are enthusiastic users of social media, they may be less adept at understanding online terms and conditions. This January, law firm Schillings and the Children’s Commissioner for England set out to make the T&Cs of social media apps understandable for young people by simplifying the language.

The Children’s Commissioner wanted to help protect young users’ privacy and improve their understanding of who holds their information and what they do with it. “If most adults don’t understand [the T&Cs], then how can children be expected to?” says Rachel Butterfill, policy analyst at the Children’s Commissioner.

The task in this case was to take the 17-page document of Instagram, the photo-sharing site, and turn it into one page of easy-to-understand text. “We lawyers hide behind long sentences and complicated jargon,” says Jenny Afia, a partner at Schillings and part of the Children’s Commissioner task force on children and the internet. “So to simplify something into one page meant we had to really understand each term.”

The task force included academics and leaders from non-profit bodies as well as children. “It reinforced to me the value of not just speaking to other lawyers but getting people from different backgrounds to come up with different solutions to problems,” says Ms Afia.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
About this series

In this edition: — the rule of law, legal equality and political freedom —the top 50 law firms and legal service providers; in-house legal teams ranked for innovation alongside firms; top 10 individual innovators; the rule of law and access to justice; and collaboration as a business model