A guide for small to medium-sized law firms to survive the digital era

February 1st, 2024
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Picture source: Gallo Images/Getty

By Youlander Jele Chaz

The rise of artificial intelligence (AI) and the expansion of the digital landscape in South Africa has brought both challenges and advantages for legal practitioners who are sole practitioners or directors of small to medium-sized law firms. This article seeks to advise legal practitioners on how they may use digitalisation for growth and expansion.

Challenges

With the development of more AI technology such as ChatGPT and other similar generative AI technology, the public is shifting to seeking legal advice from these sources and this, in turn, affects small and medium-sized law firms economically.

The failure to embrace digitalisation by small and medium-sized law firms leads to redundancy. The public has evolved to embrace technology and are keen on online services.

Small and medium-sized law firms may have to spend extra money to mitigate against cybercrime that rises as they incorporate digital software in their firms but, this is very necessary for growth.

The advantages of evolving and embracing the digital era for small and medium-sized law firms

Evolving is cost-effective in that small and medium-sized law firms cut certain costs such as travel and other administrative costs by opting for online consultations. Online consultations will keep the firm relevant in the event of a future pandemic as the law firm would have already established a trusted online presence.

Technology ensures that services are quick and easily accessible. Small law firms can embrace digitalisation and cut the costs of rent as one can conduct meetings whether they are at home or shared offices.

Online consultations also enable small and medium-sized law firms to provide flexible and not so formal traditional setups that encourage clients to relate more to them.

Climate change is a serious concern that should be considered by small and medium-sized law firms. The adoption of digital tools reduces the overall carbon emissions in the air. This is achieved through the reduction of the use and production of paperwork (App4Legal ‘The environmental impact of legal tech: Moving towards a paperless legal department’ (www.app4legal.com, accessed 15-9-2023)).

The high cost of document storage can be reduced by investing in digital storage, however, as stated earlier, small and medium-sized law firms should be wary of cybercrime and the interception of these files. In a recent case of Hawarden v Edward Nathan Sonnenbergs Incorporated [2023] 1 All SA 675 (GJ); 2023 (4) SA 152 (GJ) the defendant was ordered by the court to pay the plaintiff an amount of R 5,5 million as compensation for the loss suffered by the plaintiff as a result of cybercrime and business e-mail compromise.

In addition to the above, small and medium-sized law firms should familiarise themselves with legislation to ensure compliance when using technology. The Electronic Communications and Transactions Act 25 of 2002 is an essential Act that regulates all electronic communications in our courts.

The courts have already shown legal practitioners an example of embracing digitalisation. The courts first introduced CaseLines, a software designed to assist legal practitioners in filing, submission of court documents, and the online conducting of trials. CaseLines has been replaced by Court Online, which can be accessed on www.courtonline.judiciary.org.za. Legal practitioners have been trained on its use and are adjusting and adapting to it.

Digitalisation promotes growth as it saves time and enables small and medium-sized law firms to use the extra time to further expand and service more clients.

In conclusion, small and medium-sized law firms should harness and embrace the fourth industrial revolution to grow and expand. Digitalisation should not be seen as a threat but should be seen as a tool for progress and should be used in compliance with legislation. It is suggested that legal practitioners be trained on how to use technology to progress and further the potential of their small and medium-sized law firms.

Youlander Jele Chaz LLB (Unisa) is a legal practitioner at Youlander Jele Attorneys in Kempton Park. 

This article was first published in SA Lawyer in 2024 (January) DR 5.

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