The release of legal futurologist Professor John Flood’s latest academic paper, looking at the potential impact on the legal profession of artificial intelligence, blockchain and other cutting-edge technologies, represents the latest evidence that digitisation is being welcomed in an industry that is renowned for its innate conservatism and often slow to respond to change.

There is still a long road to travel, however, and it will fall to future generations of lawyers to play their part in ensuring these new technologies are fully embraced by, and embedded in, the profession, if they are to deliver the real business benefits beyond the hype.

Professor Flood’s paper suggests that law firms generally “lack a scientific base from which to analyse their needs with respect to technology”, which translates into lack of partner confidence in making decisions about IT investment. In turn, this can cause hesitancy, delay – and, potentially, loss of competitive advantage. This is why the evolutionary road has been rocky for many firms – and will continue to be unless they learn to bring a more disciplined approach to defining and meeting their technology needs.

A particularly challenging conundrum is where on a spectrum should a firm pitch its next IT investment? Should a firm stay in the comfort zone of the well-established and familiar? Being fearful of venturing beyond current tech platforms that focus mainly on tracking legal work will keep a firm behind the curve. However, forcing progress too quickly – disregarding what a firm’s people and culture can cope with – risks a lack of engagement, and huge amounts of wasted money and time. The newer innovations go beyond merely tracking work, toward actually enabling it – and the next generation again takes this further, aiming to reduce legal work, for example, by replacing human lawyers with machine-driven conceptual interpretation.

So lots of market advantages to be gained, but how far into the future should a firm be gazing when making individual IT investment decisions? Firms need tools for assessing where they are now, where they need to get to and, crucially, how they can get there – and they need a new internal language for technology that all staff can understand. Too many firms approach tech investment on a project-by-project basis, rather than designing a cohesive overarching strategy for their tech journey that gets buy-in from the top, and using this as a template for making decisions about individual IT projects and investments.

Once a new internal language is established, everyone at the firm can be encouraged to be creative. Lawyers of the future will set themselves apart and demonstrate their readiness for career progression by blending legal knowledge with tech savviness, suggesting to the business new ways that legal services can be delivered by clever use of technology. They will also be the ones who welcome (rather than fear) the opportunity for technology to completely transform how legal services are delivered, even to the point of changing the very shape of the law business itself.

As legal tech evolves, the smarter law firms will increasingly separate out the different ‘strata’ of legal services and reassess how each layer is best resourced – whether by humans, by machines, and whether they still need to be housed within the law firm business or law department, or are better situated outside.

We have seen successful examples already in Thames Water’s ‘managed legal services’ contract with Berwin Leighton Paisner, and subsequently Eversheds Sutherland. And we have seen it more recently with UnitedLex’s own project with LeClairRyan, launching ULX Partners. ULX Partners is a shared platform for multiple law firms to benefit not only in technology that is continuously invested in and updated, but also in other resources too, including knowledge management and process innovation know-how.

According to Professor Flood, this sort of disruption will gradually become the new norm. He sees a future in which law firms operate as ‘distributed entities’ – different parts of the traditional law firm function being dispersed across various separate business structures and single-project vehicles.

The successful law firms of the future will be those who set a culture of embracing change, rather than shying away from it. And the successful lawyers will be those who are not threatened by this, but can adapt and excel in a very changed – and continually changing – environment.

Jeffrey Catanzaro (pictured) is vice-president of the legal business solutions team at UnitedLex.