Being forced to switch – almost overnight – to remote hearings was very dramatic for UK litigation. However, the quest for equality and the march of technology, while not quite as sudden, are having an equally profound impact on the litigation landscape that we are only now really beginning to deal with.

It was with these thoughts in mind that I recently hosted an online panel consisting of:

  • I. Stephanie Boyce, the first president of colour of the Law Society of England and Wales;
  • Robin White, a barrister practising employment and discrimination law who transitioned from male to female in 2011;
  • Julia Salasky, founder and CEO of Legl, a provider of client-management software for law firms; and
  • Deba Das, a fellow dispute resolution partner at Freshfields.

Some of the main talking points are set out below.

Litigating in a diverse society

How can the UK judicial system change to reflect the society in which it operates while retaining the qualities that make it respected around the world?

I. Stephanie Boyce called on the legal services industry to do more to challenge the stereotypes of what a lawyer looks and sounds like. Robin White, who for much of her career has challenged those stereotypes, added that inclusivity means showing that the law is for ‘us’ not for ‘them’, which in turn means ensuring the legal profession represents the people it serves.

Technology as an enabler…

Julia Salasky was clear that technology was generally a force for good as, for example, it allowed clients to attend hearings remotely, thereby reducing financial and environmental costs. She also said that the increased use of technology had encouraged law firms – particularly smaller ones – to rapidly digitise their services and enabled all firms to consider clients previously off the radar.

Deba Das questioned whether lawyers had taken – or were able to take – full advantage of the available technology but noted that the rapid switch to virtual hearings showed that the legal profession could adapt quickly if needs be.

… but also a barrier

I. Stephanie Boyce referenced the Law Society’s Law under lockdown report, which found that the policy response to the pandemic had had disproportionate impacts on vulnerable groups. To counter this, the legal profession must ensure that the continued use of technology does not discriminate against those who are less able to afford or access legal services.

Robin White used the example of employment tribunals, where around 50 per cent of parties are unrepresented. With some of those individuals struggling with technology, the switch to remote proceedings may work against them. She also warned that a heavy reliance on technology could drown out the more important issues of a case.

I. Stephanie Boyce noted that law firms and legaltech developers are beginning to consider ethical issues when developing, procuring and using technology. The Law Society has recently issued a report on the matter, with the aim of helping solicitors embrace technology while still complying with their paramount professional duty to act in the best interests of their clients.

A positive outlook

While recent Law Society data on diversity in the legal profession make for sobering reading, Robin White was keen to point out that we should recognise how far we’ve come – sometimes in a very short period.

Deba Das said that the Black Lives Matter movement has completely changed the conversation on diversity and inclusion. Major international law firms now have more initiatives and targets to encourage a diverse range of people from trainee level all the way up the partnership. Law firms are also now having to detail their diversity credentials when pitching.

Julia Salasky pointed out that law firms must become more open minded to survive, which means embracing new people and technology. And with the move to agile working, recruiters now have a bigger pool of talent from which to draw – something that could accelerate the diversity push like never before.

After the main discussion, breakout rooms explored how organisations had already started addressing some of the issues raised in the plenary. We were delighted that speakers from Next 100 years and the Business Disability Forum joined our own Freshfields Stephen Lawrence Scholarship Scheme and Innovation Zone colleagues to do this.

You can view a recording on the main session here.