The future of the legal industry and related services is already an intensely debated subject. There is no longer a discussion about the “if” but only about “when” and “how” the legal industry will change and adapt to find its rightful place under the umbrella of all the technological advances and innovation which are already profoundly impacting all aspects of our lives and society. Unfortunately, the modernization of legal services is happening on a very low scale and with little impact. Traditionally (and this is also highly regulated in various countries in the laws related to the legal profession) the legal industry is very conservative, and any new technological developments are adopted only after they have become ubiquitous. Consider, for example, the emergence of electronic signatures tools and how unused they remain at a wider level even though the benefits and the security of these solutions is already undeniable. There are still legal provisions in many jurisdictions requiring a handwritten physical signature for a document to be valid from a legal point of view or to be admissible in court in case of potential litigation. Also, the new developments in machine learning, document understanding, process automation and standardization of various activities inherent to a corporation or any other type of organized business have created a gap between the state of the legal industry (and the way the legal profession is organized) and the actual needs of business and society.
There has always been a lag in adopting new technologies by legal professionals, be it an in-house lawyer, paralegal, outside counsel, legal consultant or a judge. The impact of this though was not necessarily felt by the stakeholders and the delay in adopting anything new was disguised in the formalism and the traditionally conservative approach to legal processes, procedures and overall legal-services-related mechanisms of work. Depending on the specific area of legal services at which we are looking, the priorities for innovating or for changing the status quo of how legal services are provided are different. We will see a lot more focus and a desire to innovate and improve legal work in multinational corporations which have large global operations and teams situated all over the world with high volume and bureaucratic processes and procedures than within a law firm. There are several reasons for this difference in approach, but what is important at this point is to make sure we differentiate between the legal professionals’ audience and their respective stakeholders. Understanding the differences and the actual landscape of the legal profession and the many forms it can take, the specific objectives, priorities, the external and internal dependencies for pursuing them, but also what is currently being defined as the legal services environment, will allow us to apply the right terminology and design to the applicable framework required for continuous innovation in any legal team, irrespective of their specific focus or stakeholders. The need to evolve, adapt and continuously be in touch with new technological advancements is essential for any legal professional, not only to ensure survival in a highly competitive and regulated environment, but also to gain competitive advantage in the market. The current tech environment is fascinating and the opportunity to apply the new tools and solutions to the complex mechanism of various legal processes and logic is unprecedented.
RPA in the Legal Industry
According to Gartner, robotic process automation (RPA) is a productivity tool that allows a user to configure one or more scripts (which some vendors refer to as “bots”) to activate specific keystrokes in an automated fashion, emulate tasks, manipulate data, trigger responses, or execute transactions. Although the technology has been around for a while (since 1990, primarily as a screen scrapping tool with some basic workflow automation capabilities), only recently (2015) has this category of software really taken off with new capabilities in terms of process automation and the ability for the users to design end-to-end solutions. These capabilities should be leveraged by the legal industry to make sure it remains up to date with the tools available on the market which would make legal-related work and processes faster, easier and more accurate. Unfortunately, what happened twenty years ago with e-signature technology is currently happening with robotic process automation which can be used as a new technology applied for legal digital transformation and process improvement. The difference is that we need to make sure we learn from these lessons and that the industry and regulators do not repeat the same mistakes but rather proactively embrace the technology and its benefits. One important activity which relates significantly to RPA is the ability of the software to scrape information online from various sources and databases. Although technically this is needed to make sure data is easily and rapidly accessible in various processes used by different companies or professionals, some websites specifically restrict the ability to scrape data without indicating any reason on why this is necessary or how the actions can be done in an acceptable manner for that website. It needs to be clear for everyone what they are trying to address with that restriction or if it needs to be more nuanced. Any restriction should indicate the actual reason why robots cannot be used or else we risk getting into other discussions related to specific product restrictions on the market without reason which would contradict the applicable laws. It would rather be far more useful to indicate that it is not acceptable to use any kind of software designed to carry out malicious acts such as spam bots or web scrappers misappropriating confidential information. This is not an exhaustive list of actions that can be taken in an automated manner with malicious intent, but blocking everything in terms of automated access without having this nuanced approach is both damaging for the persons with legitimate interest that have automated mechanisms to check information on the web, as well as for those website owners that are indiscriminately restricting automated access and damaging their own interests.
Some of the RPA tools can be accessed and used for free (with certain restrictions) as open-platform software available online to everyone to test and use. RPA allows for the creation of digital users (software robots) which can put together the various and otherwise amorphous blocks of software used by companies and individuals for a variety of processes (payroll, invoicing, accounting, contracting etc.), and to link and manipulate them similar to how a human user would do. This creates the right premise for a full digital transformation and automation of a company. Although the extent of RPA is yet to be determined in the context of current technological advancements such as AI, blockchain, and IoT, the existing landscape of automated processes is a good indicator of the potential it has in this increasingly digitalized world – automating new or legacy systems, processes and ways of working. We are experiencing a digital technological revolution which is changing the way we interact, think and decide.
The most important prerequisite in any process to improve and automate legal efficiency is to first understand the existing infrastructure of the company. This will allow for the establishment of efficient processes that will ensure legal security, operational scalability and drive sales generation. Any kind of process or sub-process touched by legal needs to be as smooth and fast as possible. One of the most important areas where these principles can be applied relates to a company’s contracting process, meaning contract templates, tools and review process. Complex processes with a lot of operational dependencies result in unneeded legal negotiation, time spent on non-vital matters or boilerplate clauses which only creates customer frustration and delays in securing a deal. Considering all this, it is essential to put in place simple and short contract templates and ensure all this is done with the use of the latest technologies (RPA, contract management tools, e-signature). Standardizing and simplifying contract templates and operational-related infrastructure will ensure focused and fast legal involvement and resolution, reduce negotiation time and remove customer frustration and non-value added dependencies. By ensuring clear digital legal processes, the main three requirements for legal automation are met: (i) digital documents (contract templates, forms, statements, documents etc.), (ii) digital processes (document generation, review, approval, signature, filling, audit) and (ii) digital tools (enterprise software tools, e-signature, e-bill, e-storage, etc.).
It is never too late to address key legal issues by leveraging existing company technology to simplify legal and compliance infrastructure. The first step in understanding how RPA can be leveraged in conjunction with existing tools and processes and where a robot would be useful for the legal industry requires an understanding of what the process is currently delivering. This will allow for an appreciation of what it could deliver if a robot would be in charge of running it by optimizing all the existing elements and dependencies. The best use cases for highlighting the potential of RPA in legal and compliance services are automations involving various data sets, sources, data and document types. An example of this is an automation called Export Control Robot. This is a robot that scans and searches through multiple online and offline databases, processes different types of documents and sources, applies pre-defined rules to identify the keywords that are of interest (suspect entity, person, sanctions), and compiles and logs all search results in a consolidated internal database for compliance purposes.
Another example where different types of documents are manipulated, reviewed and completed is the Contract Robot which is tasked with processing contracts on standard templates and carrying out a first line review. The robot is able to generate and validate standard contract templates, analyze and process changes on standard and non-standard templates, apply pre-defined rules to documents, run reports, execute processes and tasks autonomously. The implementation of Global Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) also triggered another legal robot tasked with ensuring privacy. The GDPR robot registers all data subject inquiries into how the data is processed, checks the internal databases where personal data is processed, compiles the requested information, creates a report and replies directly to the data subject with the details on the processed personal data related to that data subject. A universally applicable use case in any legal department is the automation of frequently asked questions through a robot which can both deliver 24/7 information related to systems, people, policies and processes, including trigger them, but also educate the users of a company on an ongoing basis.
There are also other robots which can be put at work to take care of any critical internal process such as the Conflict of Interest Robot (which manages the generation, completion, first line review and signature process of the conflict of interest statements each employee needs to do) or the Regulatory Robot (which can search multiple sources, identify required legal information and deliver it). Any legal professional can have the right digital legal assistant with some creativity and initiative in changing the general status quo from which it is not always easy to depart. The development of the legal automation industry is still in its early days even though the technology has the capability to profoundly change how the legal teams work. With RPA, legal professionals can automate many processes in their line of work, especially those with well-defined sets of parameters.
Legal automation represents an important element of the current technological revolution in which systemic evolution is ensured by robots and humans together. Without looking at how automation can simplify our work and life, we are delaying the current benefits but also the unknown possibilities and opportunities which automation can open.