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Core Legal Practice and Legal Tech, an Overview

by Joshua Fraser

case management software, practice management software, legal accounting software, legaltech, technology for lawyers, case management, immigration, london, united kingdom

Many scholars and practitioners of law, of all levels, from the freshest and humblest undergraduate to the most seasoned courtroom veteran, are almost certainly familiar with oft-mocked and joked about side-effect of studying and working in the law; namely, the invariable requests and questions from non-legal family and friends about aspects and facets of the law.

Whether simply seeking an answer to a general legal question or trying to ascertain a solution to a personal legal problem, people connected to legal professionals frequently have some query or another to which they expect a forthcoming, knowledgeable and relatively speedy answer.

However, it is an unfortunate truth that many of these questions can and do go substantially unanswered, usually with an unostentatious explanation that the query relates to a sub-discipline of the law far removed from the remit of the legal practitioner in question.

It is for this reason that it is often helpful, whether new to law or an industry veteran, to take a step back and apprehend a holistic overview of the core components of the law, with all its multifaceted dimensions, sub-fields, appendages and emerging areas.

It is worth mentioning that any such overview, in a legal world so currently technologically charged and so poised to be digitally revolutionised, that neglects to incorporate legal technology solutions with its synopsis, and does not include in its outline how legal technology trends might serve to transform the relevant sectors it summarises fails to accurately paint a picture of core legal practice as it stands today, and crucially how it may appear tomorrow. 

It is for this reason that this overview contains brief appraisals of ongoing and potential future legal tech applications in each of the practice areas touched upon. 

The ‘Core’ Areas of Law

Law is composed of a myriad of disciplines and subdisciplines. However, until recently, there were seven ‘core’ areas of UK law. This number has since been reduced to six, as law incorporated into the English Legal System through the European Union has ceased to be binding within the UK, as a result of Brexit, unless it has been retained or preserved by virtue of the EU Withdrawal Act 2018 and 2020. This change in the status quo has led to the argument that there remains little need to devote substantial attention to EU derived law in the UK, at least as separate to general UK public law.

The remaining six core areas are as follows:

Constitutional Law:

This field of law revolves around the core pillars that underpin the application of the law in the UK legal system. In practice, this means constitutional law, also known as public or administrative law, often revolves around abstract concepts of law in action, such as habeas corpus or Dicey’s theory of Parliamentary sovereignty. 

It is somewhat ironic to refer to constitutional law in the UK as constitutional, as the UK has no official codified constitution, unlike the United States or Germany, for example. However, the UK is governed by a series of conventions as well as some flag-ship or ‘constitutional’ acts which compose the majority of what could be considered a loose constitution.

Conventions are non-binding expectations placed on lawmakers in the UK to do or not do certain things. Perhaps one of the most well-known of these is that any Member of Parliament who lies to the House should resign, usually when exposed. Since these are non-binding, they cannot be legally enforced, and rely on honour and, when push comes to shove, the democratic will of the electorate to be discharged in full. Constitutional acts by contrast are acts that Parliament and the judiciary consider to be highly important, as they condition the legal relationship between UK citizens and the state in an overarching manner.

Much of a UK constitutional lawyer’s work will be spent working with a variety of statutes, including constitutional ones, such as the Human Rights Act 1998, to ensure that arms of the UK government are working in a legally bona fide manner.

Given the disparate and nebulous nature of UK public law, it is complex enough to practice, let alone systematise into legal technology. However, this has not stopped forward thinkers from considering potential game-changing applications of AI and how these might automate decision making or remedial appraisals when public authorities fail to uphold the law.

Tort Law: 

Tort law is a particularly wide area of law. It has an interesting legal etymology, coming from the French word for ‘wrong’. Broadly speaking, Tort encompasses all issues where one party is ‘wronged’ by another outside of a contractual agreement. This could include personal injury through negligence or trespass on land. Indeed, certain categories of criminal offences can be prosecuted in tort. For example, a battery claim under the field of tort is known as trespass against the person.

Prosecuting an otherwise criminal claim under tort has two advantages for a claimant.

Principally they stand to receive money directly, as opposed to the defendant being incarcerated or fined with the proceeds being sent to the government, as punishment. This arguably results in a more pragmatic form of justice, where the innocent party is financially compensated for a wrong perpetrated against them.

Secondly, it is far easier to succeed in a claim in tort law, than criminal, as tort exists under the Civil Law umbrella. In Civil Law, the burden of proof is ‘on the balance of probabilities’, which roughly means greater than 50% chance. This is the opposite for criminal cases, which require surety, that is a belief ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ for a conviction.

Since tort is a particularly wide-ranging, important and commercially viable area of the law, it has been the focus of many legal software tools. In particular, Tort is a field of law that requires a considerable amount of predictive analysis for its practitioners. This is because torts can happen to individuals of all backgrounds. With the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 increasing the eligibility threshold and dramatically reducing available legal aid for civil cases, it is important that practitioners assess whether it is worthwhile for their clients to undertake litigation, which is one of the major reasons for the increasingly popular ‘no win, no fee’ model of legal practice.

As such, law and data analytics stand to be of particular importance in this area. Indeed, financial concepts in this area of law, which are designed to increase access to justice, are likely to be supercharged when combined with legal tech. Consequently, firms whose practice area involves tort law should keep an eye out for legal tech that could enhance their practice.

Land Law:

Land is one of the most important commodities on the planet and has long been a vital aspect of the UK economy and society. It is for this reason that the regulations and stipulations of land law are both archaic and indispensable, as they underpin much of our lives today. 

Land in the UK is typically organised around a descending scale of priority, from the most powerful right of Freehold, which is the ability to own land outright, through from leases/leasehold down to rights such as easements or mortgages. Whenever an individual owns a piece of land privately, they will engage one or more of these rights, which are protected in law if valid.

Given this venerable history, it is unsurprising that land is a field of law that first saw variations in legal practice management, and the liberalising trend of non-lawyer legal professionals, most notably in the relative rise of controversial ‘conveyancing factories’.

Whenever a parcel of land is purchased or sold at the freehold level, it is subject to conveyancing. This is a process comprising three stages: exchange of contracts, completion of deed and registration of the title to the Land Registry. Once these stages are completed, the title is transferred. This process requires legal expertise, so as to recognise rights or burdens that have benefitted and to ensure the land has been acquired in accordance with the law and the requisite formalities completed. Conveyancing factories involve dividing and delegating stages of this process to various partially or non-qualified legal professionals, where they only complete a specific aspect of conveyancing. This process is then signed off on by a lead solicitor. By opting not to utilise fully qualified legal professionals these factories can reduce costs, while still retaining the same amount of revenue.

While such a system has been criticised for potentially providing a lower quality of work for clients, something which could prove disastrous for both the clientele and the firm engaging in the practice, such systematisation of legal processes is axiomatic in its profitability and arguably its innovative qualities. Such a commercially viable mode of business has the potential to become even more potent and, crucially, reliable with the advent of digital law firm management systems, which have the potential to increase the completion rate of legal work, while reducing the likelihood of errors.

Equity & Trusts:

Much akin to land Law, trust law has a storied and absorbing history behind it. Equity or trusts is commonly cited to have first been developed in the 13th century, where feudal lords heading to participate in the crusades transferred the ownership of their lands to friends, family and neighbours for safekeeping and maintenance.

When these men returned from the far-away conflict, some found those they transferred their estates to unwilling to return the land. Under the rules of common law, those who had received these properties for safekeeping now had full legal ownership over the estates, as they retained the full legal title, and were under no obligation to return these lands to their original owners. Equity allowed for the judges of the day to circumvent this legal issue and arrive at a just and equitable outcome, in having the land transferred back to the original owners.

In this sense, equity can also be used to refer to a bank of remedies and legal concepts that allow for the circumvention of traditional common law. However, in the practice of law, equity usually refers to the concept of a trust, which is where a trustee holds a trust property, which can be land or chattel (such as money or goods), on behalf of a beneficiary. The trustee has the legal title of the goods. However, the beneficiary, who does not legally own the items subject to the trust, has an equitable interest in the trust property and can enforce this interest on the trustee in the event of a breach of trust.

Commonly, trusts are used to hold assets for minors, charities or simply regular individuals and are the core concept behind wills. For example, pension funds are trusts. 

While many areas of the law involve voluminous documents and their storage, legal document storage is an essential component of trust law, as solicitors will be regularly required to hold and review documentation, specifically complex trust deeds such as wills, that is indispensable in proving equitable title to the trust property. Without the secure storage and management of these documents, their clients would be heavily disadvantaged in any potential claims.

It is for this reason that new holistic advances in legal tech, such as managed cloud services for law firms, provide an extra layer of accessibility and security in today’s highly digitised society.

Criminal Law:

Criminal law is perhaps one of the most well-known areas of the legal sector. This area sits in opposition to the other areas of law mentioned in this list, as it sits outside of the aforementioned Civil Law umbrella, instead occupying its own Criminal system, where the burden of proof is the aforesaid ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ and the remedies include more punitive measures, such as custodial sentences. 

Criminal lawyers in the UK will either work privately, as defence lawyers, or as lawyers retained or contracted by the Crown Prosecution Service, who work with the police to secure the convictions of alleged criminals or offer them a defence at trial.

Since the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, Criminal law has remained one of the few areas which still meaningfully benefits from government provided legal aid. This is because the criminal component of the legal system is integral in ensuring justice is exacted in the UK, and incidentally avoiding false convictions wherever possible. In theory, this is to ensure that all citizens, regardless of background, have access to justice when criminally wronged or accused of criminal wrongdoing.

Incidentally, Criminal law is also one of the fields of law most heavily affected by the backlog in cases. Thus, criminal law practising firms and chambers stand to gain heavily from legal aid case management software, which would allow them to reap the rewards of legal electronic case management systems streamlining their practice, and ensuring case matters are dealt with promptly, efficiently and with due care.

Contract Law: 

This area of law is often considered most alluring by aspiring lawyers, for its synonymity with the eye-watering remuneration associated with commerce and commercial law as a whole. In truth, contract law, while inseparable from commercial law, is often a part of a greater whole. 

As seen in the section on land law, contract law most often functions in synergy with other core areas of law, serving to bind and to provide a basis for enforceability when parties are attempting to commit to a specific course of action. 

Contracts in law are built on three specific elements: an agreement (that is a legally valid offer with an equally valid acceptance), an intention to create legal relations and consideration. The former of these have a variety of sub-rules that dictate their function but are in concept fairly straightforward. Consideration on the other hand is a relatively confusing term for the concept that something of value must be exchanged from either party in order for a contract to exist. This is designed to prevent gifts from being unfairly enforced or situations where favours are made binding – which would open the door to one party taking advantage of the other.

Much of a contract lawyer’s time is spent on either the creation, variation or terms of a contract. The UK is often considered to be at the forefront of contract law, in terms of providing a good legal basis and system for undertaking commercial agreements, which is why a surprising number of contracts agreed in foreign jurisdictions provide, in their terms, that the parties will be subject to UK law, should a dispute arise. Moreover, the UK itself is a booming centre of international commerce with many deals and agreements that operate within and across its borders

It is for these reasons that contract law specialising firms and chambers are often not short on demand for their labour. Equally, however, competition in the Contract law sector is just as fierce, with firms battling to retain high rolling and big-ticket clients. It is for this reason that legal contract management software often requires integrated and dedicated legal client software and legal CRM software to be of real use to a firm operating in this ultra-competitive sector. For example, email integration systems can serve to support

Law as a Kaleidoscope

At a less integral and more abstract level, the various core areas of law interact, blend and coalesce into various kaleidoscopes that constitute their own more specialist areas of law.

Take, for example, the still rather general discipline of commercial law. This field of law will often require a healthy mixture of contract law, land law and trusts law, likely with other more specific disciplines, such as company law, included.

It is worth noting that commercial law is still fairly generalistic, as the law goes, as there are much more niche legal fields, such as pet law, which combine elements such as constitutional law, tort law and sometimes trusts law, in instances where individuals wish to create non-charitable purpose trusts for their pets.

Legal Technology inside the Legal Kaleidoscope

While all these areas of law have existed for many years, and, at a core level, constitute the backbone of the legal sector, there has never before been a time where legal practice could be so enhanced by technology. It is likely that the innovations we see today are only the tip of the iceberg. 

To find out more about developing legal tech, make sure to look at Good Law Software’s blog.

case management software, practice management software, legal accounting software, legaltech, technology for lawyers, case management, immigration, london, united kingdom

References

[1] ‘Employability Legal Practice Areas’, The University of Law at https://www.law.ac.uk/employability/legal-practice-areas/  

[2] ‘Areas of Law’, All About Law at https://www.allaboutlaw.co.uk/law-careers/areas-of-law 

[3] ‘Public Law and Technology’, at https://publiclawproject.org.uk/focus/public-law-technology/ 

[4] ‘Areas of Law You Can Specialise in’, at https://www.thelawyerportal.com/careers/areas-of-law/areas-legal-practice/

[5] Suzanne Rab & Serle Court, ‘Legal systems in the UK (England and Wales): overview’ at https://uk.practicallaw.thomsonreuters.com/5-636-2498?transitionType=Default&contextData=(sc.Default)&firstPage=true 

[6] ‘Commercial Law’ at https://thestudentlawyer.com/commercial-law/ 

[7] ‘The Reality of LegalTech in Operation: Tales from the Inside’, King’s College London at https://www.kcl.ac.uk/events/the-reality-of-legaltech-in-operation-tales-from-the-inside 

[8] ‘Legislation’, Legislation.gov at https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ 

[9] ‘Trusts’, The Law Society at https://www.lawsociety.org.uk/en/public/for-public-visitors/common-legal-issues/trusts  

[10] ‘Getting Under the Skin of Legal Tech At Law Firms’,  Lawyer Monthly at https://www.lawyer-monthly.com/2021/11/getting-under-the-skin-of-legal-tech-at-law-firms/

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