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Lawyering in the tech age

Lawyering in the tech age


Much ink has been spilled, and even more words feverishly typed over the impact of technology on the legal profession, writes Susan Wnukowska-Mtonga.

Recently, a survey conducted by Law360 found that more than half of law firms increased their technology budget between 2015 and 2016, and a white paper released by Mitratech in 2016 estimated that the spend on legal technology was currently in the billions and growing.

The increase in spending and use of legal technology has caused more than a minor tremor in the legal profession, with lawyers questioning whether in this brave new world their roles will soon be replaced with artificial intelligence.

To some extent this fear is legitimate, firms and in-house counsel already use cognitive tools that learn each time they complete a task by identifying patterns in data. Yet, the increase in the use of legal technology also presents an opportunity for lawyers to rethink their roles and redefine the value-add that they provide to clients.

Legal technology gives lawyers the chance to rethink how to best utilise their legal skills to assist their clients in new, creative and more effective ways. The technological disruption to the legal profession has meant greater choice for clients, who are now in a position to access legal tools to facilitate work traditionally completed by lawyers.

This has forced law firms to rethink how they provide legal services. Some law firms in Australia, the UK and the US are investing in technically upskilling their lawyers by offering coding courses and running hackathons in partnership with tech specialists. The end goal appears to be to retrain lawyers, to move away from traditional styles of providing legal advice to modes that utilise advances in technology so as to assist clients in a more effective manner. 

For example, app technology provides opportunities for lawyers to not only work for, but collaborate with clients to develop legal solutions which better meet a client’s current and future needs. This requires lawyers to “think smart” as well as recognise what is most useful to a client.

A lawyer is today in a position to create evolving legal advice by using simple concepts like decision trees tailored for the client in an app. In such cases the client can immediately understand the possible legal consequences of their, or their company’s decisions by inputting data and getting results rather than having to go back to the firm to obtain bespoke advice each time a decision is made.

Of course, this wouldn’t work in all situations but in the context of commercial law, it could definitely work for common commercial transactions and would be incredibly valuable for clients. In such a situation, a law firm could also maintain their relationship with the client and charge for updates to the app as laws are amended.

Of course, the law firm would still remain well-positioned to be the first port of call in the event that complex legal issues or disputes arise.

The move to rethink the provision of legal services is not only being made in firms, but also in academic institutions. A handful of universities, including the University of Technology Sydney, Stanford, and Tilburg have started to offer degrees in legal technology, or “new legal futures”.

This demonstrates a significant shift in the way of thinking about the types of skills tomorrow’s lawyers need so as to be effective in the legal industry. These degrees combine traditional legal learning with aspects of IT to produce lawyers who approach legal problem solving from unique perspectives. More importantly, this new “breed” of lawyer will have the skills to apply technology to solve complex legal problems. These degrees will no doubt provide graduates with a considerable edge as they enter the legal profession.

While some universities appear to be responding to the need to create a new breed of lawyer, there are no doubt countless students entering law school today who are concerned about what the increase of legal technology has on their job prospects upon graduation. It is undeniable that many legal technology tools will take over some of the bread and butter tasks reserved for graduates.

Many smart tools are being used to perform due diligence, discovery and document review at a more cost-effective and efficient manner than graduates. Further, such tools provide arguably better service to clients as, by using a sample of documents tagged as “relevant” artificial intelligence has been proven to be more effective than human document reviewers, who are often sleep-deprived and apply different value-judgments in assessing individual documents.

However, rather than seeing this as a detrimental to the profession, law firms should see this as an opportunity to redefine the foundational work for recent law graduates who will no longer be cutting their teeth by pulling all-nighters, rifling through endless stacks of documents while surrounded by last week’s coffee cups.

The increase in the use of legal technology allows law firms to provide trainees with more complex legal work and has the potential to increase the value add of law graduates who are able to tailor technology to solve complex legal problems.

This requires graduates to actively take a role in becoming experts in new technologies and does not necessarily mean they are out of a job.

For years, Richard Susskind has been calling on the legal profession to rethink the way it provides legal services in light of emerging technologies. While there is no doubt that the use of legal technology creates new complexities in the legal industry, these complexities do not necessarily spell the end of the legal profession.

Instead, they provide one of the first opportunities for the legal profession to redefine the work it does, and more importantly rethink how it does it. Legal technology may take over some of the traditional (and let’s be honest, often dull) work lawyers have performed in the past, however, it does not necessarily have to replace the profession if the profession is willing to adapt and find new and creative ways to utilise technology to provide more effective legal solutions for clients.

Susan Wnukowska-Mtonga is a 2018 LLM candidate at Columbia University. She has worked both in private practice and as in-house counsel. Susan is the managing director of Rights Nights and is currently interning at the Centre for Reproductive Rights.

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