Wedlake Bell’s rising star on how tech is changing they way City law firms work
Technology is increasingly changing the way we work, and law firms are no exception. Innovation and new technical solutions are rapidly penetrating the City’s legal powerhouses.
At the same time, barristers and other lawyers feel they are not compensated sufficiently for the hard work they put in, prompting thousands to strike earlier this year.
To address the role of technology in transforming law, as well as to discuss the dissatisfaction about pay within the legal sector, City A.M. sat down with Matthew Brunsdon-Tully, who joined Wedlake Bell in 2022 as partner and head of family ADR & Innovation.
Technology is changing and impacting a range of sectors. How is tech changing the legal sector?
Technology has changed legal practice, all the way from onboarding clients and AML/KYC at the front end, to virtual court hearings and use of an online portal for financial resolutions and divorce on the other. What hasn’t happened yet, but will, is increasingly sophisticated technology that will enable financial and other disclosure to be uploaded using open banking.
Tell us more.
The collation and exchange of financial disclosure is still pretty cumbersome although of course people now download and serve PDFs downloaded from their mobile banking apps instead of rummaging around in drawers for whatever paper statements they can find. Soon it will be a case of ticking some boxes and the disclosure appears as if by magic and constantly updates itself
Do you see any risks in the increased uptake and use of tech in law?
Certainly, the more that people can do for themselves when they separate is going to impact on the use of family lawyers. No bad thing many would argue! But not having a lawyer, even in the background on a ‘minimal use’ basis, is risky. To give you one example, now that divorce is ‘no fault’ and all online, again, no bad thing in and of itself, more people are going to sort that out first and sort out their finances later.
However if the assets are in the other person’s name and/or overseas there’s going to be real risk if that person dies, of not getting a fair share. It is the same with pensions – if you are divorced and the other spouse holds all the pension rights, if they die the spouse without rights will have lost the chance to claim a pension share and having divorced will not be entitled to a widow’s pension.
“People have to be careful before charging ahead.”Matthew Brunsdon-Tully
Another point is that with more hearings being done remotely, fewer cases, whether financial or involving children, are settling at directions hearings. Back when all hearings were in person the chance for everyone to get together and sort things out was in my view greater. I know that many lawyers prefer remote hearings. They are certainly more convenient. But I am not convinced, other than for genuinely administrative hearings, that they serve the lay client.
What is holding back the further deployment of more tech?
I am not sure that anything is holding back deployment of more tech, actually, save that of course any improvements involving technology which might make the court system operate better are always going to get held up by the glacial pace of procurement and so on at state level. We are already seeing that more and more people are deciding to use the private sector.
Can you elaborate?
By that I mean, Private FDRs and Arbitration. An FDR is a hearing where a Judge gives couples an indication of what they might do if they were deciding a case at a much longer hearing involving oral evidence. It is a snapshot. The Judge can’t then have any involvement in the case thereafter, and subsequent Judges can’t know what was indicated. This snapshot indication really helps many, if not most, couples to sort out their financial arrangements by consent without further costs, as usually the Judge will indicate something somewhere between two opposing positions, enabling people to bridge the gap with careful negotiation.
The problem in the state system to be blunt is that the courts are overwhelmed. So, these important hearings can be rushed and suboptimal. Sometimes the Judge won’t have received the bundle of key documents or position statements due to IT issues, and so on. Now you have experienced lawyers, myself included, but if a case is fiendishly complicated people can opt for a QC or even a retired High Court Judge, who will hear the arguments and give a snapshot indication on a privately paying basis, I would argue relatively inexpensively if you look at the cost in relation to the costs associated with not reaching agreement and litigating.
And if we zoom in on arbitration.
Yes, the same is true of Arbitration. You can pay for a lawyer who is trained to decide your case for you. Again, it is a cost. But it means that you can get an early decision in a more relaxed setting and save many months of legal fees, usually a much greater cost. And the private sector is always going to be nimbler than the state in terms of tech that enables more efficient disclosure, analytical tools, hybrid hearings, where some people attend and some do not, and so on.
“There’s not a lot holding back tech in the private sector but sadly the state system is being neglected.”Matthew Brunsdon-Tully
It had no option but to modernise to some extent during Covid, for example the key documents bundle was always previously in a ring binder. Now they are all electronic and it is rare to find a family lawyer who will still insist on a paper bundle. But absent another pandemic the pace of change is likely to be glacial again.
There were strikes in the legal sector over pay in 2022. Where did you stand?
Around 15 years ago when I was at Bar school, I had dreams of becoming a criminal law barrister. I wanted to both prosecute and defend. I realised however that I could not afford to, as the pupillage awards, the starting salary for barristers, were in the region of £10,000, for the year, to work in Central London and live sufficiently close to chambers to get there and home each day. So, I fell into family law, initially as a barrister for a decade or so and now as a Partner. I see that in the 15 years since, the median income for a barrister doing the most serious legal work that there is, is £12,200 in the first three years of practice. That is below minimum wage, but most barristers are self-employed.
“The family justice system is neglected enough. It does not even begin to compare to the criminal justice system. The public should be really angry about this.”Matthew Brunsdon-Tully
Of course, most will not have to experience the system for themselves. Maybe they feel detached as a result. Also, there are so many things for so many people to be angry about at the moment that it becomes difficult to see the wood for the trees in terms of causes that require support. Ironically the Government’s adding of cameras to some Crown Court sentencing hearings may pave the way for the public to see more of the system that is in such dire need of that same Government’s investment.
Another problem is that it is very easy indeed to use phrases like ‘fat cat lawyers’, to assume that all lawyers are well paid, because it is true that many lawyers are indeed well paid. But criminal law barristers are effectively public servants. They are paid via Legal Aid. Train drivers have been striking recently in part over pay.
“Trainee train drivers have starting salaries of around £24,000 per annum. That is double the median starting income of criminal advocates.”Matthew Brunsdon-Tully
I don’t know whether any MPs have joined the barristers on strike but, if they have, they have been less visible and vocal than those who have joined picket lines in support of the RMT. Why? Why is justice less important than trains?
Finally, you mentioned earlier the no fault divorce, which has become law. Has this changed family law dramatically?
No fault divorce was absolutely necessary; the previous ‘fault’ based system or ‘blame game’ forced separating couples into making allegations against the other right at the outset of critical discussions about the welfare of their children and their finances and quite often while everyone involved was still living under the same roof. It provoked conflict where the system should and now does promote peace.
As I have already said there are some practical downsides such as people charging ahead without advice thinking they do not need it. Also, it is now easier for an applicant to push ahead with a final divorce order which for reasons I have explained might materially prejudice the other spouse’s financial security. But that is not the fault, as it were, of no fault, that is something that should have been and should in the future be remedied in other ways. No fault has changed the mood music of how we do things, for the better. It was a critical change. I am not sure that I would say that it has changed the rest of family law dramatically. But it has reduced the temperature at the outset of negotiations.