By Lee Carter, director and experienced costs draftsman 
 
THE legal profession has faced many challenges in recent years, but it has largely been flexible enough to adapt and thrive. 
 
Before the Coronavirus crisis struck, our industry probably leaned more towards traditional ways of working rather than more modern digital alternatives. 
 
At Carter Burnett, we’ve always been proactive with regards to new technology and working practices. Thankfully, this flexibility allows us to continue to operate remotely with minimal disruption. 
 
Whilst many UK businesses are still coming to terms with new ways of working, it appears as though Covid-19 could be the catalyst which accelerates the legal profession’s adoption of digital technology. 
 
Remote working success proves flexibility is key 
 
During the last decade, Her Majesty's Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCT) has actively encouraged the adoption of digital technology for document sharing and the staging of hearings. 
 
Whilst a handful of law firms have opted to go down the ‘paperless’ route, the vast majority of lawyers still print out all their papers so they can be filed chronologically and sent for discovery. 
 
Whilst there’s nothing wrong with this historic and traditional practice, the digital processes adopted during lockdown have proven there are other ways to share documents and files. 
 
Instead of carting tonnes of paper across the country, many firms switched to uploading and accessing ePapers electronically via secure online portals – to help keep travel to a minimum. 
 
The social distancing practices implemented as a result of Covid-19 have also forced judges to become comfortable handing down judgements via video conference – via BT Meet Me, Skype For Business or the Justice Video Service. 
 
Instead of trudging to court, lawyers and judges now know they can gain access to justice without the need to attend in person – a massive step forward for our profession as we bid to embrace digital change. 
 
It's also been great to see so many people work successfully from home and I’m sure forward-thinking firms will continue to adopt this practice in future as they recognise the benefits that increased flexibility can provide to all parties. 
 
However, once the outbreak is under control, I firmly believe the biggest plus point will be the familiarity and experience everyone has gained by frequently using the Electronic Bill of Costs. 
 
Electronic Bill of Costs has vital role to play 
 
Following the 92nd Update to the Practice Direction in 2017, using the Electronic Bill of Costs has been compulsory for most multi-track cases. 
 
At Carter Burnett, we have been massive advocates of the eBill and have invested heavily in training so that every member of our team knows how to use it proficiently when preparing a bill of costs. 
 
In my experience, the electronic bill lies at the heart of the legal cost profession’s digital future. It offers far more scope for analysing costs in detail than a paper bill ever could. 
 
Once you’ve mastered how to use the document, it is far quicker to review an electronic bill, draft advice and devise suitable settlement parameters. 
 
To date, its success has probably been held back by various issues – including: 
 
• Resistance to change from within legal profession 
• Lack of sufficient understanding 
• The need to improve how fee-earners record time 
• Poor training in Excel and XML spreadsheets 
• Some judges and lawyers eager to use old-style paper bill 
• Electronic bill is often dispensed with far too quickly 
 
Unfortunately, a minority of practitioners and judges lack the digital skills and training required to use the eBill confidently and interpret its data properly. 
 
At Carter Burnett, we recently experienced a first-hand example of this at a costs hearing. Having been allocated an hour and a half to review the electronic bill by way of provisional assessment, the judge was forced to postpone their decision and reschedule for a further four-hour time slot presumably due to not fully understanding the Excel format. 
 
Although this happened before the Coronavirus epidemic, the flexibility displayed to operate remotely during the crisis only further emphasises why everyone in our profession should learn new skills and embrace digital. 
 
Conclusion – Digital is definitely the way forward 
 
There’s no doubt that the smooth running of our courts and tribunals is an essential public service – and this must NEVER be removed for certain aspects of the law. 
 
However, the Coronavirus crisis has proven that the justice system can use audio, video and digital technology effectively and should continue to do so in the future. 
 
Initially, this adoption of technology may make completing tasks slightly slower (as people come to terms with acquiring new skills), but this shouldn’t prevent us from embracing digital. 
 
Despite the serious nature of the Coronavirus, the situation has firmly established that this ‘new’ digital way of working can be successfully implemented. 
 
At Carter Burnett, we will continue to invest in digital skills and training so that we can adopt new practices which will help us thrive for years to come. 
 
Hopefully, this will be greatly appreciated by our clients, who often expect us to use modern methods of communication, and all the other parties (defendant firms, insurers, etc) who play a vital role in the legal costs process. 
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