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December 22, 2021
Georgi Minchev takes a look the biggest legal trends of 2021.

Rise Of Legal Tech

The growth of legal technology is not a sole product of lockdown’s remote working, but in fact stems from the build-up of efforts to integrate modernisation into this somewhat traditionalistic sector, hence, 2021 has so far been the pinnacle of legal digitalisation. As clients have demanded more clarity by their trusted legal advisers, there could not have been a more appropriate moment for such digitalisation to step in the partnerships between law firms and their clients to mitigate the distress experienced during lockdown.

By definition, the legal jargon term lawyers often refer to as ‘legal tech’ relates to any piece of technology used in the delivery of legal services. 2021 observed a surge in the provision of services after lockdown, so to stay on the sharp end of competitiveness, legal technology became a necessity for the operational efficiency of law firms.

Some legal technology software programmes are the automated document review system Luminance, smart contracts and the case management system Capterra. What is becoming increasingly common is for law firms to develop their own legal technology and even whole company streamlines associated with this. Ashurst operates its so-called Ashurst Advance Digital sub-division; CMS has its own CMS Evidence collection technology, plus Dawn Raid and Insurance Apps; whilst DWF prides itself in the DWF Draft system and being the parent organisation of Mindcrest.

A Legal Trends Report previously indicated that half of customers are comfortable with using legal technology, hence CMS, for example, runs its Law-Now portal to equip its clients with knowledge-enhancing courses on matters in their mutual transactions, e.g. cybersecurity and data protection. Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer’s ‘Freshfields Lab’ is another similar hub, where technology is introduced to clients so that they can familiarise themselves with the backbone of contemporary legal services.

A greater infusion of legal technology into law is promising and most likely law firms will continue to prioritise this type of innovative approach to work in maintaining the levels of client service and trust during the post-pandemic times.

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Focus On ESG

Law firms have also teamed up in the joint response to the urgent need of addressing global warming and climate change with an increased focus on ESG. Better energy management, carbon footprint reduction and improved recycling and waste management are all initiatives supported by the overwhelming majority of law firms, but this is also supplemented by other ‘responsible business’ policies that can encourage the amalgamation of creativity with results. For example, Osborne Clarke has a bee hive installation in its Bristol office, whereas Bird & Bird maintains a green rooftop in its London office and converts any used cooking oil into biodiesel.

A recent event enabling law firms to stand at the centre of environmental discussions was the United Nations’ COP26 meeting in Glasgow, where a number of law firms – including Addleshaw Goddard, Baker McKenzie, Clyde & Co, Herbert Smith Freehills and Linklaters – sent their representatives to partake in the dialogue concerning climate change.

In line with the present-day climate action plan, law firms have exercised environmental sustainability autonomy in their own discretion. Some, especially Burges Salmon, have respectable ambitious goals of reaching a net-zero level of emissions by 2026 and others – such as Womble Bond Dickinson – have introduced electric car charging points and designated office Environmental Representatives. Most law firms address the matter of environmental ramifications with deep seriousness and running sustainability committees has transitioned into a norm for law firms – to illustrate that, take into account Forsters LLP’s Green Impact Group and Sustainability Board, or Travers Smith’s Environmental Committee.

With the UK’s passing of the Environment Act 2021, this will pose necessary environmental regulations on and set targets for businesses to follow – so, who knows, the legal sector may well be on the path to assisting other branches of the economy to revolutionise their environmental sustainability outlook?

More Diversity, Inclusion And Social Mobility

2020 was the precursor to calls for increased diversity and inclusion within the legal industry, which 2021 aimed to materialise. Research suggests that diversity in the legal workplace generates more efficient ideas and different perspectives form better planning and approach to client matters.

Aside from official diversity statements and diversity teachings in workshops, Open Days and designated inclusion law firm presentations/talks, practical measures have also been taken to instil diversity in the world of law. For instance, the litigation-only specialists Stewarts Law LLP expressed intentions to award over 50% of its work experience placements to ‘students from the BAME community and those from disadvantaged backgrounds’.

Another action taken to promote diversity is establishing or enlarging activities around founding internal law firm committees/boards/networks to address minority representation. Bird & Bird is a good example of a law firm with strong commitment to diversity exemplified by its Embrace and StandOut networks, as well as commitment to a disability-inclusive workplace via its partnership with EmployAbility. Another diversity-friendly course of action has been promoting designated programmes, such as Clifford Chance’s ACCESS and ACCEPT schemes.

Social mobility has been enhanced by the financial stimulation to attract talent from all backgrounds developed by various aid schemes, such as the Bird & Bird Bursary Scheme, the Norton Rose Fulbright Bursary Scheme and Stephenson Harwood’s Scholarship fund. Speaking of finances, increasing Trainee and Newly-Qualified Solicitors’ salaries would drastically facilitate the repayment of student loans, which would attract a more diverse cohort of applicants from less socio-economically advantaged background. Therefore, firms, such as Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner, Mishcon de Reya and Herbert Smith Freehills have entered the so-called ‘salary war’.

Incentives have also been provided to encourage law firms to adopt diversity-orientated strategies, such as the prospect of adding one of the several ‘Diversity Law Firm of the Year’ titles present across the variety of annual legal awards dinners.

Most remarkably though, diversity truly thrived in 2021 when I. Stephanie Boyce took the office of the Law Society President of England and Wales, ultimately becoming the first person of colour to hold this prestigious position amid the total 177 presidencies.

SQE Changes

A logical change to promote legal talent from a wider background is via the structural change in the route to qualification embodied by introducing the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) in England and Wales. While this commenced only at the start of the last quarter of 2021, it is still a formidable trend that will bring about further developments in the near future.

In brief, the SQE is a two-part exam, whereby SQE1 is split into two closed-book Functional Legal Knowledge tests examining candidates’ combined knowledge across seven topics via a total of 360 multiple-choice questions. SQE2, on the other hand, tests the same number of different topics, but through four oral and 12 written skills assessments.

Whilst the Legal Practice Course (LPC) was, as its name would indicate, a course programme, the SQE is solely an exam worth £1,558 for part one and £2,422 for part two, thus, candidates will very likely need to undertake additional SQE preparation courses. Likewise the LPC, luckily for SQE sitters, they can also merge their SQE preparation with a Master’s qualification, which will also open further doors for funding, such as a student loan.

Previously, Law and non-Law graduates with a Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) entered the LPC before undertaking a mandatory Training Contract (TC) to accumulate two years of qualifying work experience. One major change is that the concept of ‘qualifying work experience’ has been stretched to incorporate degree work placements, paralegal experience, working in law clinics and even volunteering in law centres.

As indicated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority, any job ‘in a real-life environment where a candidate does actual legal services work’ carried out in up to four different organisations will suffice in lieu of the two years of mandatory TC qualifying work experience.

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