New law paves the way for a new legal profession
09 Jul 2018
They’re cold and logical and calculating. They’re great at deductive reasoning and grammar. They research and analyse and advise and sort and file and print into the wee hours of the morning. Some hardly sleep at all. No, I’m not talking about lawyers. I’m talking about the ubiquitous, almighty machines. And if you don’t learn to love them, they will leave you behind – overworked and underpaid. Or unemployed?
The legal profession has traditionally been averse to change. Centuries of complex regulation and obfuscation, suits, wigs, shiny shoes, and labour intensive procedures have managed to safeguard this prestigious profession from external competition. An aspiring legal mind would wake up, go to university, study hundreds of manuscripts, join a practice, make coffee, become a partner, and retire smug and wealthy. But today, the digital agents of change are sending out a clear message, “re-skill, or die”
Legal technology and innovation are paving the path for a new age of law. A law that extends beyond the offices and libraries of law firms and is making its way into software products and websites and IT firms with a competing agenda – to make legal knowledge and services easy to navigate and accessible to all. As Adv Michael Laws pointed out at the recent Legal Innovation & Tech Fest in Johannesburg, the fundamental building blocks that have cushioned attorneys with a wall of convoluted UX are finally coming down. A system that was designed to obscure or withhold information from the masses is being disrupted. Whether it’s time-management software, smart contracts and blockchain, machine learning and language processing, or the all-encompassing forces of AI, a new day is upon us. A new law. A new legal profession.
Now, as the law becomes simplified and liberated by the machines, the legal services industry must steer towards an opportunistic, client driven ecosystem. In the world of new law, IT companies can provide you with most of your regulatory compliance needs. Machine learning algorithms can formulate an expertly crafted contract, which your legal advisor might only have to tweak. A chat-bot could advice you on divorce proceedings, and the papers will be e-filed to court. Litigation discovery will be almost instantaneous. And while the old-school firms continue to pay their lawyers millions to draft NDAs, your new-age legal service providers are automating anything they can.
In fact, in the time it took you to read the 4 paragraphs above, Ross Intelligence could have sifted through thousands of cases, and delivered a finely manicured list of those most relevant to you. In that same time, a weeping candidate attorney in the troglodyte law firm next door has also read 4 paragraphs – of a single case. And he or she may have another 9 hours to go before finding anything significant. And in those 9 hours, thousands of new graduates may be competing to join the system. Only a few hundred may be lucky (or unlucky) enough to find their way in.
Unfortunately, universities today are still focused on preparing graduates for old law. A paper-intensive, rigid system, void of innovation and technological enhancements. And for fair reason – it corresponds to the skills that most law firms are looking for. What they should teach is a practical amalgamation of law, technology, and commerce, which measures our ability to apply technological tools to better understand, enhance, and deliver legal and commercial knowledge which is already available to all, in the most efficient way.
Regrettably, despite the incredible advancements in legal technology, many law firms choose to remain oblivious to these accelerating agents of change. It’s fair to assume that such ignorance is a product of the senior partners which control these corporations. Seasoned ‘two-finger-typers’ whose past success now overshadows their curiosity for innovation. Their minds are set within the scope of the billable hour, and visions of a junior attorney manually rounding up the minutes so the firm can tick another day. What they fail to see is that in order to survive, legal tech must be embraced, not shunned. True, many lawyers stand to lose their jobs as the proliferation of automation makes the masses redundant. But we must accept that this evolution is unstoppable, and the benefactors will be the proactive agents who collaborate with the machines. It is a buyer’s market, and he who sells used-time rather than results will ultimately vanish.
In the midst of new technologies, firms that are able to identify novel areas of law may thrive. Smart contracts and blockchain may open up entirely new fields of legal expertise. Lawyers with the ability to read and analyse code may rise in high demand, to scrutinise the risks associated with automated computer protocols. Bad codes could result in the loss of millions, and the myriad of legal repercussions surrounding such outcomes are still not clear. Equally disruptive, the coming into effect of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), and the Protection of Personal Information Act (POPI) may cause migraines to companies who store information on the blockchain, where the value proposition is the immutability of data. And beyond legal tech itself, things like augmented and virtual reality, self-driving cars, cryogenic freezing, and a hoard of other advancements, will open up opportunities and ethical conundrums for modern lawyers to salivate over. But with all these risks and opportunities, and the growing arsenal of legal-tech, experts must be careful as to how they reconcile with these technologies. Successful transformation requires thorough research, and a well-executed plan for integration which truly adds value, and doesn’t simply tick the box for innovation.
As knowledge becomes free and abundant, a lawyer’s expertise will gradually pivot to the last line of defence. The techies will keep automating for their bread and butter. And the machines will keep churning. But with all its speed and power, software still lacks the wisdom of human intuition. Software can summarise and automate a million tasks in seconds. It can sift and analyse and provide us with all the pieces of the puzzle. But it can’t always make them fit together according to a unique set of circumstances and external stimuli. At least for now, machines lack the ability to formulate tailor-made solutions that appease a complex human society. And when they do one day reach such levels of complexity, we can only hope that machine-benevolence (and welfare) keeps us alive.
Don’t miss this year’s Legal Innovation & Tech Fest in Johannesburg to make sure that your legal career stays on track. Click here to purchase your tickets.