Regulators are already sniffing around the lawtech scene like flies at a picnic

One of the most alarming calls to action I heard in 2019 wasn’t in a political manifesto or even on a GDPR training course. It was from a delegate at a legal sector seminar who urged the Solicitors Regulation Authority ‘to take ownership of the lawtech agenda’. Only within a regulator’s warm embrace, the speaker seemed to believe, will the law catch up with the rest of the world in adopting information technology.

The idea is profoundly mistaken. This is not just about the SRA; it applies to all quangoes. History has shown over and over again that the last people to put in charge of technological innovation and adoption are well-meaning apparatchiks of an organisation accountable neither to users nor innovators. Almost invariably, the outcome is either to block innovation with an equivalent of the Red Flag Act, or, perhaps more damagingly to direct it down a blind alley.

Regulators are already sniffing around the lawtech scene like flies at a picnic. Like academics and City investors, they have picked up the consensus that big changes will happen when the legal sector finds ways to take advantage of technologies such as machine learning and natural language processing – ‘artificial intelligence’ – or, more speculatively, blockchain-type encryption. Most of us hope that these changes will pay dividends in improving access to justice as well as in mundane efficiencies in due diligence exercises. Clearly, there is a need for regulatory (and representative) bodies to keep an eye on developments and, within reason, to remove regulatory barriers to innovation. There may also be a role for regulatory ‘sand-boxes’ in which professionals can test new ways of working.

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