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Law firms under threat from cyber attacks, Chambers go online, AI regulation, and more.

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International cyber criminals eye up law firms

GCHQ, the Government’s intelligence and security agency, has issued a warning to law firms that the wide-scale adoption of remote working practices in the wake of the pandemic has left them increasingly vulnerable to cyber attacks.

In a report published late last month, the intelligence organisation’s cyber defence arm, the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), wrote that the unprecedented shift towards remote working necessitated by the global COVID-19 outbreak poses a major challenge to law firms as they seek to keep their clients’ matters confidential and maintain secure working practices.

According to the NCSC, the biggest threat faced by the £36bn legal sector comes from nation states using “criminal actors for state ends, operating to raise funds and cause disruption using criminal malware techniques”. There has been a sharp increase in hacker attacks from Russia in particular, though attacks originating from Iran and North Korea have also been on the rise.

The report highlights the fact that hybrid and remote working both “create challenges for maintaining secure working practices”, leaving law firms vulnerable to the unwanted attentions of hackers. NCSC chief executive Lindy Cameron commented that “[t]he UK legal sector carries out essential work to uphold our society; however, we know the sensitive data legal firms handle can make them attractive targets to online attackers”. She added that “firms are vulnerable in new ways due to changing patterns of work — accelerated in the Covid-19 pandemic — and the increasing sophistication of cyber attacks”, though also welcomed “the increased support and investment in cyber security we’re seeing across the sector”.

Earlier in June, a number of UK firms including British Airways (BA) and Boots fell victim to a Russian cyber attack by a gang calling themselves Clop, a Russian word denoting a type of blood-sucking bedbug. BA was forced to warn its entire workforce that their details had been accessed by the cyber criminals, with other UK firms confirming that their systems had been breached by the cyber criminals.

Commenting on the NCSC report and its stark warning to the legal sector, Law Society president Lubna Shuja stated: “It is vitally important that solicitors and law firms, whether large or small, are aware of the cyber threats they face and take steps to safeguard their systems. […] By taking proactive steps to address cyber threats, we can continue to protect the rule of law, ensure access to justice, and provide secure legal services that allow businesses, individuals, and the wider economy to thrive.”

This is an issue that needs to be on the radar of every law firm, regardless of size. The immediate consequences of breaches in data security and the accessing of confidential client files by malign outside forces are bad enough in and of themselves, but the fallout in terms of the reputational damage suffered following such attacks can be just as devastating. Just ask the good folks at Tuckers Solicitors, which fell prey to a ransomware attack in 2021 and was fined £98,000 after some of the stolen data made its way onto the dark web. Or the team at law firm Gateley, whose share price dipped 8% when it revealed that “some client data” was compromised in a cyber security attack on its IT system.

The brave new world of online chambers

As the digital revolution continues unabated, it perhaps comes as no surprise that one of the great bastions of British legal tradition – that of the barristers’ chambers – has also gone virtual. The Barrister Group (TBG), an online set of barristers’ chambers which owns and operates the Clerksroom Direct and Clerksroom brands, states on its website that it provides “a newer, more efficient model of working for barristers, through our innovative digital platform that facilitates their interactions with solicitors and the public”.

It’s an innovative approach that seems to be working well: TBG recently announced that it has received private equity backing from LDC, part of Lloyds Banking Group, to the tune of an estimated £10m. TBG is the first online chambers of its kind to land such a sizeable outside investment, and plans to use the cash to revolutionise the profession, as CEO Stephen Ward makes clear in the firm’s own press release: “We are building the Bar of the 21st century and LDC’s experience of building tech-enabled services companies will help us take the next step in making that happen.”

In a business model already familiar from consultancy-based law firms, Clerksroom and Clerksroom Direct offer their barristers greater flexibility through innovative technology that allows them to work remotely without having to be tied to bricks-and-mortar chambers. TBG already has around 240 barristers working for it, including eight King’s Council, but plans to expand this number to 500 in the next three to five years, with a long-term ambition of 1,000 barristers working under its aegis.

Whilst it won’t be for everyone, there’s something inherently attractive to me about these kinds of maverick disruptor businesses that challenge established tradition. And I’m just as interested to see how chambers react. Watch this space.

Law firms begin to embrace customer reviews – sort of

I don’t know about you, but many of my decisions as a consumer are influenced to at least some degree by customer reviews. Whether I’m hiring a plumber, deciding on buying a piece of tech or considering which new restaurant to frequent, the opinions of other consumers can help guide my choices. The hospitality industry in particular is well-aware of the power of good (and bad) customer reviews on portals such as TripAdvisor, which is why many restaurant managers now seem to spend as much time mustering the patience of a saint to reply politely to snarky customers online as they do working out shift rotas and polishing the silverware.

And now, it seems that the phenomenon of customer reviews is increasingly being adopted within the legal industry. Although this is a sector where word-of-mouth recommendations still hold sway, recent research conducted by the Solicitors Regulation Authority, Council for Licensed Conveyancers and CILEx Regulation has shown that indifference or even resistance to online exposure is ebbing amongst law firms, albeit at a semi-glacial pace.

The regulators ran a pilot scheme to investigate how the legal sector could improve the ways it provides access to organic consumer data, with the implication being that lawyers who fail to engage with online reviews may be compelled to do so by the SRA in future. Although the results show some initial progress, there is still much room for improvement, with only 44% of participating firms stating that they actively encourage clients to give feedback online. And of these firms, only two-thirds actually use client feedback to advertise their services. As the SRA’s chief executive Paul Philip stated: “Our pilot demonstrated that while progress is being made in this area, there is clearly still some way to go in both identifying the most useful indicators of quality and working more closely with those who can help share this data.”

Part of the problem is the inherent complexity of legal services – unlike a holiday or a restaurant, it is difficult for a lay person to really grasp whether the service they have received meets an acceptable standard, which in turn makes it tricky to derive meaningful performance indicators. This is a difficulty acknowledged by Law Society president Lubna Shuja: “It remains difficult to develop meaningful benchmarks across a diverse range of practice areas which can provide a useful indicator of what quality service should look like across the whole sector.”

However, this is a challenge that the industry must take on soon if it is to keep abreast of changes in regulations and consumer demand. For now, the SRA may be content to allow the relationship between law firms and review sites to develop organically. But for how long? Back in 2020, the Legal Services Board proposed mandatory use legislation, an idea which seems to have been quietly dropped since. However, the SRA did comment in late June that it would “explore opportunities and regulatory levers” to make legal ombudsman decisions more easily accessible to the public – the subtext being that firms may be compelled to publish the details of complaints on their own websites or on review sites. So it seems that law firms may be better off jumping, rather than waiting to be pushed.

Many of our clients are already aware of, and are adept at harnessing, the power of positive client feedback. We would encourage any firm to tap into the precious resource that is the goodwill of their satisfied clients and use this to advertise their services more effectively.

As I say in my LinkedIn training: word of mouth is evolving. Are you?

In other news

AI regulation should align with EU, says Law Society

A couple of issues back, we ran a story on business leaders’ perspectives on AI regulation. Soon after we went to press, the Law Society issued its response to the Government’s ‘pro-innovation’ white paper on this topic, calling for alignment with the European Union’s nascent regulatory regime.

In its 48-page response, the Law Society states that “Divergence from EU and US principles-based regimes adds complexity for law firms when determining which ethical guidelines apply and in which jurisdictions”. It also highlights the “urgent need for explicit regulations delineating liability across the AI lifecycle”.

For more on this story, please see here.

Empowering South Asian women in the legal profession

Last month, family-law practice SKB Law launched a network to empower women with South Asian backgrounds in the law. The Aura Network was officially launched at the “South Asian Women Gamechangers in Law” event at the House of Lords on 20 June, attended by leading industry figures including former Crown Prosecution Service solicitor Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, Baroness Sandip Verma and Baroness Shaista Gohir, who all took part in a panel discussion alongside Law Society president Lubna Shuja.

After noticing a lack of representation for South Asian female legal professionals, the founder of SKB Law, Sarah Khan-Bashir MBE, set up the Aura Network “to foster a supportive community where members can share experiences, uplift each other, and navigate their professional journey together”.

You can find the press release accompanying the launch of the Aura Network here, and a longer write-up of the inaugural event in Legal Cheek here.

Pride Month: campaigning for the persecuted

My eye was caught by a very moving and inspiring story in The Times late last week – an interview with barrister and activist Dr S Chelvan, who campaigns on behalf of LGBTQ+ asylum seekers. Specialising in immigration and asylum claims based on sexual or gender identity, Chelvan works with the Home Office to improve its practice and policies in dealing with asylum seekers who have fled persecution in their native countries.

As a “queer person of colour, first generation immigrant, Hindu with a hearing difficulty”, Chelvan has experienced the icy winds of prejudice first-hand. His family disowned him when he came out to them at the age of 21 while he was studying law at Southampton University, where he is now a visiting professor. Happily, however, he has since reconciled with his parents, and his mother now treats his husband Mark as a third son. It’s such a cliche, but time really can be the greatest healer sometimes.

Legal help website Advicenow in peril following funding cuts

An award-winning legal help website is fighting for its continued existence after the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) withdrew funding from the service. Set up by Law For Life, a “charity dedicated to ensuring that everyone has the knowledge, confidence and skills they need to secure access to justice”, the Advicenow website received 1,250,000 visits and more than 1.9 million page views last year, with 51% of users coming from low-income households.

After receiving core direct or indirect funding from the MOJ for the last decade, Law For Life recently learned its application for an Improving Outcomes Through Legal Support grant had been unsuccessful. Law for Life chief executive Dr Lisa Wintersteiger commented: “For over a decade since the legal aid cuts, the government has been funding us and sending people to Advicenow as the primary digital portal for litigants in person in England and Wales. At a time of unprecedented challenge for the many people who just cannot afford a lawyer, the decision to turn the lights off within one month is an abject failure of custodianship.”

The future of the Advicenow website hangs in the balance, and Law For Life is in urgent need of donations to keep the service running. I encourage everyone in my network to donate just £2.50 to help keep this extremely valuable resource available to those in need. For more details on how to donate, please see here.

Our article in PSMG’s Centrum magazine

As our regular readers know, TBD has been heavily involved in helping ForThe100 in its campaign to introduce a statutory duty of care for students while at university. Centrum Magazine, the journal of the Professional Services Marketing Group, has now published our article on the work we did for the campaign and the lessons other marketers can learn. You can read it here.

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