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By Bjorn Biel M. Beltran, Special Features and Content Assistant Editor

In a span of a few decades, the world has moved from an analog way of life to an almost entirely digital one. Nowadays, a person can work, study, order food, check finances, get a medical checkup, and purchase all their daily necessities without ever leaving the house.

It is through technology that many industries have seen massive transformations in their operations, prospects, and even revenues. The legal industry is no different.

For instance, New York-based expert consulting and insights firm Expert Institute have developed its Expert IQ software, which can automatically do the upkeep usually done by attorneys in doing background checks on their expert witnesses.

“Many attorneys unknowingly put more time and effort into conducting background checks on their retained expert witnesses than they need to. Even with all the research attorneys and paralegals conduct on experts, it’s possible to miss a detail about the expert that could impact their case,” Expert Institute wrote.

Another example is AI company ROSS Intelligence utilizing the capabilities of IBM Watson to perform legal research. Being able to learn legal terminology to conduct research automatically, Watson can sift through a volume of case law and statutes that standard legal search engines cannot compare to.

In the Philippines, attorneys at Martinez Vergara & Gonzalez Sociedad (MVGS) have been using technology to remotely access their data from anywhere and respond quickly to clients’ needs. Time-tracking applications are also making it easier to monitor productivity across the firm’s various projects and transactions, as well as transparency in services rendered.

Rosalia S. Bartolome-Alejo, head of Business Formation & Foreign Investment Practice Group and co-head of Banking & Finance Practice Group at MVGS, said that lawyers are now more equipped to collaborate on important matters using more productive digital tools.

“Legal technology has exponentially grown in the last decades, with emerging new technologies quickly outdating old methods of lawyering and doing business. From the days when legal technology merely provided communication, word processing, and documents handling facilities, digital technology now offers new approaches to solving old problems to make a lawyer’s life easier,” she said in an interview.

“Knowledge has become more readily available because of online research, forums, websites, search engines and legal databases. Advising clients has likewise become easier because clients have the same access, and so they become also more educated about their rights and remedies.”

Opening to change

The transformation has been far from smooth, however. Erika Paulino, partner at the Corporate and Commercial Group of MVGS, noted that there has been some resistance from law firms with regard to adapting to the changes brought about by digital technology.

Meanwhile, MVGS Senior Partner Eduardo “Dindo” A. Martinez noted that “legal practitioners were just happy developing digital capability in a leisurely phase, but the pandemic has forced law firms and lawyers to accelerate this learning process.”

Atty. Martinez added that “while the legal industry’s initial response may have been reactive, the pandemic provided the opportunity for law firms to reexamine their toolsets and make long-term changes to ensure business continuity and remain relevant in the face of technological developments.”

MVGS Senior Partner Manuel Z. Gonzalez also noted that there is likewise the challenge of weighing the operational efficiencies brought about by having hybrid work arrangements in place, against the professional isolation of lawyers among their peers. Regardless of the type of legal practice, great lawyers are honed by interaction with peers.

“Recognizing the impact of digital transformation to the legal profession, it has become a necessity for the legal industry to continue to adapt to the ever-fluid digital environment. Law firms will have to be flexible and open to continually transform themselves to be responsive to the changing needs of their clients and the global market,” Atty. Paulino added.

Because of the rapid development of the sector, Atty. Mark S. Gorriceta, managing partner at Gorriceta Africa Cauton & Saavedra (Gorriceta), said in another interview that for the legal industry digitization and adopting technology are the way forward to providing better legal service and client solutions

“We have seen a big shift in utilizing technology in the way we conduct court hearings and business meetings — which, prior to the pandemic, are typically conducted face-to-face. Many law firms like our firm, have also incorporated technology in its processes, internal communications and team collaboration, generating client leads, business development, and client engagements.” he said.

As more industries further digitize their operations, both legal firms and regulators must recognize and respond to every change to meet the demands of their clientele.

“Digitization has transformed the way law firms deliver legal services. Specific to our firm, while we adopt a hybrid approach, most of our dealings with clients have gone seamlessly remote with the shift to technology-enabled collaboration apps and platforms. Our work-flow and efficiency have also improved since we took advantage of legal technology tools such as virtual assistants, AI-enabled chatbots, cloud storage, online platforms, video-conferencing tools, digital signatures, remote notarization, and automation of traditional law firm practices such as e-billing, e-filing and e-hearings. Being the leading law firm in the fields of Tech and Fintech, we are proud that we have been on the forefront in this technological shift.”

The managing partner said that these opportunities do not come without any challenges or price. Like other industries, law firms should always remain cognizant and prepared to manage data and security  risk concerns, as well as the rising financial cost of adopting digitization in its traditional legal processes.

Adapting further

Atty. Bartolome-Alejo, meanwhile, pointed out that the country is still far behind its ASEAN neighbors in adapting government services to the digital age.

“We are a long way from full digital transformation, and with the pandemic experience which exposed the need for a faster and meaningful digital implementation, it is hoped that this remains prioritized,” she said.

“As a whole, though, the Philippine regulatory framework is supportive of innovation and digitalization. Governing laws are generally in place providing an enabling environment for technology-driven activities and transactions, with regulations covering among others basic contracting, consumer protection, data privacy, and intellectual property protection.”

Atty. Paulino added, “There are, however, uncertainties as to the actual implementation of these regulations and regulatory overlaps, which may be due in part to novelty of application as we slowly turn to technology.”

Even as the country moves past the pandemic, its impact will be felt for years to come. Mr. Gorriceta said that he foresees fintech, particularly emerging technology initiatives such as Web 3.0 and artificial intelligence (AI), will continue to make disruptions in the sector.

“We foresee that the use of AI could potentially become the most significant disruptive innovation especially when used wisely. Although we do not think AI will replace lawyers, we believe it will only likely aid or complement our legal work,” he said.

MVGS Senior Partner Mark O. Vergara added that lawyers face the challenge of learning technology so that they become comfortable with it and able to effectively use it to aid, rather than impede, their practice. 

“We need to accept that technology and digital innovations will continue to remove boundaries and drive us into the complex world of cross-border transactions and multi-jurisdictional issues. So, it should be a natural reaction that we integrate ourselves into this interconnected society and develop digital capability, but retain the inherent conservative values of respect for diversity, rule of law and social justice,” Atty. Vergara added.