Today we’re publishing the whole of our interview with Martin Langan from Road Traffic Representation. Martin Langan worked as a solicitor and equity partner for many years until 2007, when he set up a business that specialises in applying technology to improve how solicitors work and deliver the law to their customers. He believes that technology will transform and improve legal services, helping lawyers provide more value and customers to get quicker and better solutions at lower cost.
He runs two businesses. Road Traffic Representation is an automated online legal service for persons faced with a motoring prosecution. Artificial intelligence is deployed to provide free advice about potential penalties and defences, together with fixed fee representation by a barrister, the brief to whom is automated by the online process. Legal Workflow Limited works with law firms, companies and legal departments to automate processes and improve efficiencies.
You were previously a partner in a law firm but now you’re working as a legal technology consultant and have created an online legal service called Road Traffic Representation. What led you to change your career path in this way?
In the last five years of partnership, I became interested in workflows and how they could improve efficiency and productivity. I was managing a personal injury department at the time and had customised a newly acquired case management system . My partners weren’t necessarily as keen on doing that for the rest of the firm and I decided to come out of partnership and became a case management consultant for a law firm in Hampshire, for which I worked for about four years. I went freelance in 2007 and my interests have widened since then. In particular I wanted to be able to automate processes for clients so that they can effectively self-serve on any given matter. Road Traffic Representation is proving that concept.
It’s interesting you said freelance lawyer because I guess ‘freelance’ is common in things like journalism but do you think that’s something that’s going to happen more in the law? Is it becoming increasingly common to be a freelance lawyer?
Yes I think it is, but possibly not as a lone ranger type scenario. I’m seeing quite a lot of hubs being set up whereby the firm provides the backbone for the lawyers who want to work with it. They provide the IT infrastructure, the marketing, the compliance and the rest of it and they then engage lawyers who quite often want to work from home. They certainly want to plough their own furrow, as it were, and they usually have a fee-sharing arrangement so the firm gets a percentage of billing and the lawyer gets the rest – the lawyer usually gets most of it – and it’s a win-win all round really because the firm in question makes money but they support the lawyers and the lawyers have the freedom to work the way they want to. One of the great things that happens as a result of it is that lawyers aren’t subject to the tedium of targets and all the rest of it. They work when they want, they bill what they feel comfortable billing and there’s no pressure on them to meet the overheads that a traditional firm requires.
We read so much about how law firms are changing, or should be changing. Do you think that this type of lawyering is something, from the firm perspective, that could become quite typical in the future?
I think it’s inevitable. I can’t see a future for most firms running as they do now, with an expensive set of overheads which were designed for the kind of practice you had when you didn’t have the technology you have now. Market pressures and regulatory pressures will require firms to act in a completely different way and you may well see law firms engaging lawyers but actually having far fewer staff employed as such. They can also now outsource the work much more and add the benefits of technology to the process, so I don’t see firms continuing as they do now.
How much is this change of culture to do with the way technology has changed how people can access legal information, and how much is it to do with the consumer relationship with law firms which may have suffered in recent years due to this distrust to do with hourly billing and so on?
Well it is a bit of both. Obviously people have less money to spend. That may manifest itself and suggest explicitly that this is the case or it may manifest itself in people not going to a lawyer to resolve their problems. So either they just put up with whatever the issue is or they find other means of dealing with it. Now at the moment, I don’t think technology has been deployed sufficiently for people to have alternative routes to deal with it, in the way, for example, that the Road Traffic Representation system does, but that will change, that will become a commonplace way of doing things. So that will bring enormous pressure and enormous change and the surprising thing to me is that that change is not happening more rapidly at the moment. Most of the new lawyers coming in aren’t taking advantage of technology available to them.
With Road Traffic Representation, from ReInvent, it seemed a really impressive system. How much are people already using things like RTR instead of going to lawyers for legal advice now?
Well I don’t know how many are doing it instead of going to lawyers, I only know the statistics I see and people are using this service every day, and a great deal more will be using it when, not just the service itself becomes better known, but actually the whole concept becomes more widely understood.
At the moment it’s still the case that most people are unaware that they have this alternative. Once some of the bigger players who could deploy this kind of technology start to do so, then it will become the norm. People will expect to be able to conduct their cases and matters in this way, rather than the traditional way.
It’s interesting that nobody – well I say nobody – not many people now would go to an insurance broker to arrange household insurance and so on. Practically everybody does it online – it’s just the norm. That’s just how you do things. If you’d have asked people about that twenty years ago, people would not have known what you were talking about.
I guess that’s what Susskind would call the new normal.
It seems to be something that’s definitely coming along and obviously this brings about greater transparency and accessibility to the law. But at the same time, for a young qualifying lawyer, they could be potentially going into a shrinking job market. Do you think the legal profession can deal with that particular problem?
Well I agree with Susskind’s view that you have to start with the educators, with the training providers. They are still bringing people through into the profession with the expectation that jobs are going to be there as they always have, and clearly that’s not going to be the case. So rather than saying it’s for the trained profession, in terms of practitioners, to be able to bring people into a different sort of environment, it’s really up to the educators to produce rather different breeds of lawyers – people like the legal knowledge engineers and so on that Susskind talks about in Transforming Lawyers. So if it doesn’t start from that end then people are either not being able to come into the profession at all because the jobs won’t be there or coming into firms that aren’t equipped to provide stable futures for them; or coming to firms who have actually made the leap, made the change, and not being adequately trained to work in those firms.
I was talking to Larry from the ReInvent conference last week, and we were saying, we both agreed that because people can learn things so quickly now. We are actually at the stage now that even lawyers already don’t have the same excuse of not being able to become more technologically adept because you can go and do a course online. Do you think there’s enough awareness in the legal profession right now of the current education that people can do even in whatever spare time they may have?
Well I think that’s fine for training on standard products. I think it’s more a question of lawyers exposing themselves to what is possible. IT in Law is all about what is possible, rather than asking if there is a solution to what I want? Because there is always a solution to what you want and people have to be much more imaginative about how they can deliver services. If you have a good idea about how it can be delivered, there’s almost certainly going to be a way of achieving that with IT, so I would say to people forget about trying to learn a list of things you need to know. It’s not about that. It’s about transforming your ideas into really beneficial services that can be delivered through technology.
I guess at the moment perhaps the reason why lawyers aren’t transforming themselves is – as people have been saying – there’s no need. They’re still making a lot of money from the legal profession. Do you think that the realisation that the legal profession is not going to come out of this recession as it went into it is going to really help to change that comfort?
It’s all about change that will happen around us. People talk about fixed fees, and they talk about having an online presence and so on, but actually you don’t have to strip very much away from that surface to see that what’s beneath it is still a traditional model. In terms of fixed fees, somebody put it to me the other day as “a fixed estimate”, in other words, “well, what would this cost if we were charging on an hourly basis? OK on average it’s this, and that’s what the fixed fee will be.” Well that’s of no benefit to anyone other than the lawyer.
But that model is sustainable while there are no alternatives. I do think that entrants that are coming into the profession could make a sea-change in the way the service is delivered, but they choose not to because, as you say, they are able to earn more under the current model. But when someone attempts to break ranks and start to deliver the service in an entirely different way, making proper use of technology, then it becomes inevitable that their competitors are going to have to follow suit. So it will be fascinating to see who makes that first move.
In my small way I’ve made a move, but I’m not going to change the world on my own. But when a substantial law firm or ABS does, you will see a lot of the old models start to fall away because people will become aware that there’s a different way of doing it and won’t find the existing model attractive. Therefore those firms – people who are looking at high street firms, for example – who are clinging to the old model because they can make money to survive at the moment, they are fooling themselves if they think they’ll be able to switch just like that when things change, because once that change happens it will happen very quickly and I fear a lot of firms will lose out when that occurs.
One of the things I’m interested in, because I’m writing about in-house lawyers in particular, is that in-house lawyers are starting to be seen as the people who can drive a cultural change in the law, largely because of the demand from their employers, their clients, to have more cost-efficient legal spend. How much do you think it is up to the in-house lawyer to really drive this cultural change?
It seems to me it’s the obvious solution for in-house lawyers, because, as you say, you’ve got these competing pressures. It’s the more for less syndrome and you can’t get more for less if things are continuing the way they’re going now. You can if you deploy the right technology and in-house lawyers have the power to do that. They can demand it either of the firms that they outsource the work to, or they can realise that actually they have to deploy this technology themselves and do an awful lot themselves that is currently done by their panel firms.
Clearly you have an issue with fire-fighting versus clear thinking about strategy about what can be done. But if you fight the fire every day eventually the fire will burn your house down and you won’t catch the bit that’s setting light because you can’t see it. So it’s up to those in-house lawyers to make the time and to make the issue a priority because they will then be able to make that breakthrough and start to deliver more and do an awful lot more in-house as well.
I think the weird thing, going back to education, is perhaps the reason in-house lawyers aren’t already doing this, is that they’re going into this job, which is a very multi-faceted job, solely as lawyers, whereas the really successful in-house lawyers, who are more savvy about it and are more keen to use technologies, tend to have greater business acumen, or a greater sense of technology and so on. Do you think that lawyers need to become better rounded in general?
Yes I’m sure that’s the case. But I don’t believe that lawyers, whether in-house or in private practice, carry out their day-to-day work in a vacuum that is entirely divorced from everyday experience. Lawyers and/or their children, partner, spouse, whatever, have iPhones and iPads and smart TVs, all sorts of wonderful technology around them. It takes only a moment’s thought to say “what if we did this and what if we did that with technology?” It’s evident to see and I think it goes back to that point about using the imagination to ask what if we deployed this sort of technology in our working environment? How could we make that change? So I don’t think the environment in which they work is really an excuse for not making change.