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The innovators

The innovators

By Karin Derkley

Communication Competition Innovation Technology 


These nominees for the Victorian Legal Awards Pexa Innovation Award are shaking things up.

Precedent has its place in the law, but the legal profession is starting to shake off traditional ways of going about its business.

These nominees for the PEXA Innovation Award are shaking up a few corners of the industry in different ways – coming up with new delivery models and new applications, or using innovative thinking to improve the processes of long established firms.

Technology is central to the success of each of them – not in a gee-whiz futuristic way but as a tool to do things cheaper, or more efficiently.

For Legalite, readily available web-based applications have made it possible to provide start-up customers with niche advice that doesn’t require high overheads.

CaseView’s clever use of search technology and web page design has made the job of finding relevant legislation and case law quick and easy for potentially everyone.

For Settify, artificial intelligence isn’t the subject of a scary sci-fi thriller, but a way of quickly processing information to make it easier to do the human side of family law.

And at Maurice Blackburn, a culture of innovative thinking is coming up with a host of new strategies that make the business of servicing its clients more efficient and people-friendly.



Marianne Marchesi

As a start-up herself, Marianne Marchesi is well aware of the financial constraints faced by new enterprises. And like many of her clients she’s tech-savvy enough to be able to seek out cost-effective tools to help her grow her business Legalite.

“If I had to outsource the technology, it would have been so expensive,” Ms Marchesi says. “So I’ve just had to figure things out as I’ve gone along.”

After years in large, mid-tier and boutique law firms, Ms Marchesi set up her firm to provide a highly responsive fixed-fee online-based advice service to start-ups, franchises and new businesses. “I wanted to provide a specialist service rather than be a Jill of all trades.”

To keep costs down, she uses web and smart-phone based applications as well as social media.

“I’m no tech geek,” she says, “but I do keep my finger on the pulse of what’s out there. I’m constantly trying things out, and if something isn’t working I move on pretty quickly.”

Her criteria for technology is simple: “Apart from being low cost, it has to be easy for clients to use. It’s really about leveraging technology for the benefit of clients”.

Marketing is via Facebook and Instagram. She uses Asana to manage projects across her team, Google Forms for clients to submit instructions online, and DocuSign for signing contracts. With this kind of end to end system, her two-lawyer office is genuinely paperless, she says.

From just a handful of clients in February 2017, she now has 80 clients on her books.

Ms Marchesi’s advice to others starting up is to be agile. “If something is not working be quick to change it and move on and try something different.”

Profits follow if you serve clients well, she adds. “Be client-centric in the way your firm is structured and the way you deliver services. It’s a natural flow-on that if your clients are happy your firm will make money.”


Equipe Lawyers

Andrew Natoli

Finding information about VCAT and planning law cases via AustLii can be a slog if you don’t know exactly what you are looking for. That’s what town planner turned planning lawyer Andrew Natoli of Equipe Lawyers found when he was researching cases relevant to his clients’ sites. “You could only search via text, so it was a bit of a clunky process.”

With “a bit of a background in coding”, Mr Natoli decided to make the process easier for himself. Using a program that can pluck addresses from the text in AustLii cases he designed a map-based search interface that lets users find planning and property- related legal decisions by location.

With this invaluable information at his fingertips Mr Natoli generously decided to make it available to others. Anyone can register on his website to search for relevant cases and decisions.

Having set up that resource in his “spare time”, Mr Natoli then came up with the next iteration of his website – providing a storage and cataloguing system for case notes related to planning law.

“I was doing my accredited specialisation (in planning law) and I wanted a system to catalogue my case notes so I could find them easily the next time around. While I was doing that I thought, why not add this functionality to the website and make it available to other lawyers?”

Anyone can access the case notes on the CaseView website. Those who register with a practitioner account can also add their own case notes, making it a repository for anyone who works with the planning act.

The task of pulling together the material for the website, getting the design right and making it usable has been a “long and fiddly practice” Mr Natoli says. But he has no plans to monetise the service. “I just think it’s a good thing to do. It’s the kind of material that’s already available free but it just hasn’t been very searchable until now.”




Max Paterson

Some lawyers become gloomy after reading Richard Susskind’s The End of Lawyers? But Settify CEO Max Paterson says the book set his mind “ablaze” with ideas and possibilities for ways to improve the legal profession through technology.

As a family lawyer Mr Paterson brainstormed an idea with his now chief technology officer Athol Birtley, then working in IP at Allens, for a web-based application that could help prospective clients engage with family law firms.

“People going into a divorce are often overwhelmed and have no idea about the process they’ll face,” Mr Paterson says. For their lawyers, too much time is spent getting clients to provide the information they need to help them separate their property and other assets.

But too many law firm websites are static with very little to get clients started and tailored to their particular needs, he says.

Settify provides a friendly and intelligent questionnaire embedded in a firm’s website that gets the client to draw as full a picture as they can of their situation before they visit their lawyer, Mr Paterson says.

The application uses artificial intelligence to make the process easy and dynamic. “Our criteria is that it should never ask a stupid question or one the system should already know – it should never take more steps than it has to.”

Everyone wins, he says. “Clients get to engage with the law firm immediately, and aren’t having to pay lawyers $500 an hour while they spell out their children’s names or give the value of their Audi.”

Meanwhile, solicitors go into the first consultation armed with the information they need to get straight down to business.

It’s been a compelling win-win combination for the 75 family law firms which have incorporated the subscription-based application into their website.

Settify is now expanding overseas,with its suite of offerings. Mr Paterson is currently in the UK adapting the program to the British legal system. The firm is also branching out with a similar application for wills and estates in Australia.

“The technology can basically be applied to any areas of the law where there are inefficiencies in the way things are being done,” he says.


Maurice Blackburn

Brett Johnstone

The primary purpose of technology is to make business work more efficiently, says Maurice Blackburn’s chief information officer Brett Johnstone. That’s the case whether it’s to quicken the turnaround on client briefs, or deal with one of the most complex class actions in Australian history by victims of the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires.

As the leader of Maurice Blackburn’s information technology team, Mr Johnstone says the approach at the firm is to encourage innovative thinking and find ways to leverage technology to provide clients with a better service. “There’s a lot of talk about going paperless, for instance, but my thinking is: how does that translate into real client outcomes?”

The answer to that often lies outside the legal industry, he says. With a long stint in the corporate world before he went to Maurice Blackburn four and a half years ago, Mr Johnstone says he is less constrained by traditional thinking in his approach to technology.

“I try to network with people in other industries as much possible to find out what’s going on that we can learn from and apply. There are a lot of similarities in what we’re doing to insurance and claims management firms, for instance, so we can learn a lot from what they’re doing.”

The retail industry also provides models to learn from, he says. “Our offices are essentially shopfronts, so it helps to talk to people in that industry to learn how they are managing things like supply chains and networks or data sharing.”

Seemingly simple innovations can reap substantial efficiencies. Among those is cutting down the 30 days it once took to get clients to file documents to around 12 minutes, using a combination of smart-phone technology, electronic signatures and old-school handholding.

“What we do now is send the documents out to our clients on their smartphones and then we call them and talk them through the process of signing and sending them back to us,” Mr Johnstone says.

At the other extreme, the firm’s IT team developed a suite of bespoke systems that helped distribute $800 million awarded in the bushfires class actions across nearly 14,000 separate claims. Similar systems are now being used to facilitate other settlement administrations such as the De Puy hips class action.

Click here for more information on the Victorian Legal Awards.


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