While professional services firms are often deeply rooted in traditions and adhere strictly to rules and standards, they’re also embracing new digital practices and service delivery models.

The nature of these professions also means that breakthrough technologies stand to have an outsized impact on the way they operate. For example, the interplay of artificial intelligence and the human judgment and expertise underpinning the services economy.

CommBank’s Head of Professional Services, Daniela Pasini says that firms have continued to invest in digital capabilities in recent years, providing a strong foundation to navigate the next wave of innovation.

 “In our latest research, we saw most legal services and accounting firms focusing on technology as a top growth strategy. That’s the result of a productivity drive and a heightened client expectation for quality work, delivered faster,” Pasini says.   

For Danielle Snell, the Co-Founder and Managing Partner of full-service commercial litigation firm, Elit Lawyers by McGirr & Snell, the pace and nature of digital adoption across the firm are driven by the prospect of stronger client relationships and a duty of care.

As a NewLaw firm launched in the pandemic, Elit Lawyers is using new technologies to accelerate work and break down client communication barriers, so the team spends more time on trusted and personalised counsel.

Paul Sweeney, the Chief Operating Officer at independent advisory and restructuring firm, McGrathNicol, also says its multi-year digital strategy prioritises process efficiencies so client-facing teams can be more effective.

While Snell and Sweeney agree that technology can optimise their firms’ operations and improve the client experience, they also agree that it cannot be achieved by technology alone.

Machines take care of the routine

Snell explains that in litigation, boutique firms such as Elit Lawyers often come up against well-resourced top-tier firms. This is one area where emerging technologies have the potential to level the playing field, with AI at the forefront.

“We are working with our teams, industry bodies and clients to experiment and talk about the positive impact AI can have,” Snell says

“We often deal with hundreds of thousands of documents, and AI can help us narrow the issues in a dispute, search keywords, extract evidence and prepare cross-examination.”

McGrathNicol seeks to automate and accelerate processes across the firm, including using Robotic Process Automation within its finance team. Sweeney’s philosophy is that digital adoption is a journey punctuated by small wins rather than one transformative occurrence.

“A simple example is our digital leave application that, once approved, blocks out your calendar and pre-populates your timesheet. These basic things exemplify how one action can trigger multiple automated workflows that reduce administration and routine.”

People at the centre

Sweeney believes using technology to drive efficiencies doesn’t give you an edge by itself, given “all firms have to almost move in unison to remain competitive”. Instead, he says that automation helps information processing, while professional experience and judgment set the firm apart.

According to Sweeney, a formal insolvency process is an exemplar. He says that forensic technology can analyse large data sets and enable rapid creditor communications, but “it’s a confronting situation for stakeholders and employees that requires the human element”.

Snell agrees that “it’s not just about smarter and faster processes, but how that translates to a better client experience and journey. One of the firm’s objectives has been to bridge the gap between lawyers and clients and personalise interactions in new ways.

“One of the initiatives we are building on is our digital client portal, where clients have live real time access to work in progress. Traditionally, the legal file and data around costings have been removed from the client.

“Not only is it consistent with our firm values and legal obligations, but it is  also bridging the gap between client and lawyer and inviting  our clients to be part of the team and less isolated from the legal process. . Clients should be at the centre of what we do, but that hasn’t always been the case in high-end litigation and multi-party disputes.”

A duty of care to clients

As new technologies emerge, like generative AI, Snell is careful to point out that given the firm’s strict professional obligations and duty of care to clients, industry collaboration and caution are required.

“While AI tools might transform the legal sector, and redefine human interactions, we must remember that it lacks human judgement. We’re thinking deeply about regulatory frameworks and constraints and are still in the very initial stages.”

Another aspect of using AI is how to manage ethics and bias. Snell says that as a signatory to advancing gender equality in the legal sector and as a strong advocate for eliminating discrimination in the workplace “We're working through how AI perpetuates this type of conduct. If the data used to train these machines is already discriminatory, then that can lead to more discrimination.”

Sweeney says that privacy and information security are high on the agenda. “it's the ease of data distribution and misuse that must be managed. In that way, data is both powerful and dangerous in equal measure”.

Again, he says that professional judgement is crucial to reduce risks. “It’s vital to be able to say, ‘that’s not right’, and our clients expect that from us”.

“Critical judgment is key when it comes to relying on information that has been developed either through AI or through large volume data sets.”

Pasini agrees, saying that the added benefit of responsible adoption of emerging technologies is a stronger employee value proposition. “The next generation of talent providing that vital oversight and judgement often want access to the latest digital tools, but they’re also attracted to corporate values that align to their own.”  

To learn more from leading industry experts about what’s important to business and the economy visit CommBank Foresight™ – insights for future-facing businesses. 

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