The South African legal landscape is, quintessentially, characterised by a way of doing things that has prevailed since time immemorial. The rules and ethical obligations that apply stringently and uncompromisingly to members of the legal profession are also the reason that the profession is somewhat constrained to innovate in ground-breaking ways. That being said, the practise of law is now becoming more client centric and business focused and is looking to encapsulate technological and other forms of innovation into the way in which legal services are rendered.
We take a design thinking approach to innovation. Rather than trying to figure out what our clients want, we ask them and then build it with them. This means that, in many respects, each new service line that we take to market has been co-created with input from our clients. Through multiple rounds of research interviews with our clients, our innovation teams map their needs, elicit their ideas and test prototype new services that serve those needs and preferences.
This has led 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.
As more and more global legal players enter and expand into South Africa, a more globalised one stop shop proposition is necessary for clients who are approaching their similarly expanding businesses in much the same way. Accordingly, a more integrated global offering is becoming a feature of the local legal services offering, at least from a law firm perspective. We have a distinctive global way of thinking, working and behaving labelled “fluency” – across borders, issues and practices. This fluency is what clients want globally and cross-border integration has become key to how law firms are responding to advising on complex cross border transactions in Africa and elsewhere.
The law firm landscape will also change significantly as diversity and inclusion become an indispensable part of doing business. Staffing matters with diverse teams enables the weighing in of diverse perspectives and an overall enhanced service to consumers of legal services. Diversity, inclusion and meaningful transformation is not only the right thing to do, but is also integral to business success, particularly in light of local empowerment imperatives and employment equity objectives. A diversity and inclusion programme breeds creativity, encourages a greater range of views and helps lawyers to respond better to the needs of its clients and the communities in which they work.
The higher number of female law graduates in South Africa (according to the Law Society of South Africa - in 2016 there were 2601 female LLB graduates as opposed to 1865 male LLB graduates), hopefully implies that the law firm landscape over time will become characterised by an increasing number of female leaders, as more and more women lawyers work up the ladder, assuming leadership roles.
As part of our firm’s Diversity and Inclusion initiative, we set aspirational targets for gender, that focus on increasing female representation in partner and leadership roles. Globally, nearly 40% of our firm’s 3 800 lawyers are women. In South Africa, around 61% of our staff is female. To empower female leaders, we have implemented an intensive mentorship programme to support and help our female lawyers rise through the ranks of the firm so that they can be made principal and take up leadership positions in the future.
Less bums on seats
Lastly, the “bums on seats” approach and having to be physically present in the office is becoming less relevant as technology supports agile working and an outcomes-based approach to rendering legal services. Agile working has enabled lawyers to move beyond the boundaries of traditional flexible working and this approach is likely to become a key part of how all law firms operate in the future.
There is no doubt that the ways in which law firms deliver their services are changing and law firms are becoming increasingly innovative as they adapt to client needs. We believe 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.
Lerisha Naidu, is a partner and head of the Diversity and Inclusion Committee, and Darryl Bernstein, partner and head of the Innovation Committee at Baker McKenzie in Johannesburg.