25 November 2021

Innovation and tech are levelling the legal landscape – Sheetal Deo

Published on 25 November 2021

New technologies and innovative practices are causing the legal field to undergo meaningful change.

As digital disruption brings greater efficiencies and lowers access costs, the door to justice is gradually being opened to a wider demographic of people.

Thanks to these changes, being lesser privileged may, one day, no longer prevent you from accessing legal advice and services, according to Sheetal Deo, Founder and Principal Solicitor of Shakti Legal Solutions.

The challenge for the missing middle

Legal services charged at an hourly rate can be stressful for clients. The sometimes uncertain outcomes and potentially high costs are a barrier to many seeking legal help. And one group of people is most affected: the missing middle.

Who are the missing middle when it comes to legal services?

Sheetal says, “Picture societal privilege on a scale. At one end we have people with deep pockets who have the means to pay for legal services up front.

“At the opposite, more marginalised end, we have the people who may be able to access free legal aid.

“And in the middle? We have the people who are unsure if they can pay for their own services, yet have no access to government financial support. So often they simply avoid seeking access to justice altogether.”

Creating an equal playing field

When Sheetal founded Shakti Legal Solutions, she wanted to provide access to justice for everyone. Especially those in the missing middle.

Sheetal believes legal tech and innovation are a means for bridging the justice gap.

“Legal innovation allows lawyers to deliver better value to their clients. That’s why legal innovation is embedded into the fabric of my legal practice,” says Sheetal.

“At Shakti Legal Solutions, it’s important that our clients can access legal services without hidden fees, so we offer fixed-fee services.

“We also provide ‘no win, no fee’ arrangements, payment plans and a range of pricing options.

“We’re one of the few social enterprise law firms in Australia – and perhaps the only one that has a ‘pay what you can’ model available.”

Removing access hurdles through tech

A lawyer by trade and an advocator by choice, Sheetal works with a diverse clientele, spanning across a range of backgrounds.

So she sees firsthand how technology is benefitting her clients.

For the last 18 months, as lockdowns and restrictions have limited travel, Sheetal has witnessed how using technology to communicate has made the legal landscape a lot more inclusive than pre-COVID-19 times.

“Clients have been using videoconferencing to get legal advice, attend case conferences and even attend hearings.

“This has meant those with disabilities or reduced physical abilities don’t have to navigate physical challenges to access justice.

“This has also truly been a game changer for those who are time poor or don’t have the luxury of paid leave or the ability to take time off work to travel.

“Essentially, the time, costs and physical capacity of clients of diverse backgrounds have no longer been such a hurdle,” she says.

The role of innovation as an equaliser

Sheetal says innovation also has an important role to play when it comes to improving access to justice.

“If you aren’t willing to question long-standing legal paradigms and modes of operation, technology only goes so far,” she says.

Firms like Shakti Legal Solutions are using innovative business models to break the traditional law firm mould.

“We’re improving legal service delivery by providing unbundled services, discrete task assistance and focusing on providing legal assistance to people of moderate financial means.”

Reframing the narrative

While some view the rapid changes in the legal industry as potentially threatening, Sheetal thinks it’s high time to flip the script.

Working within the community sector, as well as in regional and remote practices, she’s observed how rapidly these areas of law have adopted new tech and innovative practices.

And the outcome has been hugely positive – giving clients a host of new opportunities to access legal advice and services.

“It’s time to dispel the myth that innovation or technology are threats to the profession. They’re tools. Tools we can use as practitioners to improve our practices and our offerings.

“We need to be cautious of the language we’re using – and we need to reframe the discussion. Because truly, the future of the legal industry is looking very promising,” she says.

Plunge into the unknown

Sheetal acknowledges the breadth of information on technological and legal innovation can be overwhelming. But guidance is always available for lawyers.

“There are plenty of resources and support available for legal professionals, including the Centre for Legal Innovation (CLI), which provide free advice on navigating these unchartered waters.

“To me, the issue isn’t the lack of a defined pathway into the future. Yes, the road ahead is a little uncertain, but there’s plenty of help available to firms and practitioners seeking it.

“I believe the real issue facing the sector is the lack of urgency and motivation to adapt.”

Sheetal says it’s time to lean into the uncomfortable.

“That’s where the magic happens, isn’t it? To truly unlock the power of legal innovation, use disruption to define or your client value proposition and offerings. Understand what the market is seeking and pivot to seize those opportunities as they arise.”

Navigating now and tomorrow

With more opportunities, diversity and accessibility than the legal field has ever seen, there is no period more exciting for budding lawyers than right now.

And Sheetal has one piece of advice to keep graduates on top of their game.

“Be like a deep-rooted tree. Be constant in your goals but flexible in your approach,” she says.

“The way we deliver legal services has changed and will continue to change. But our core values, the ‘why’ we became lawyers, doesn’t need to.”

Positive change through safe spaces and storytelling

“The CLI is incredibly important to our industry.

“The industry body provides a safe space for people to learn about the changing legal sector – as well as what it means for them, their organisation and the wider legal profession.

“The CLI does this in a number of ways, but my favourite is their use of storytelling. They employ it to debunk myths and inform a clearer, more concise understanding of hot topics and buzz words.

“When it comes to changing the legal industry’s disruption narrative, they’re truly leading the way. And in the process, they’re writing a better future – for our industry and our clients,” she says.