‘Bedside manner’ is an old-fashioned term associated with doctors but in a world of robot lawyers and justice delivered via apps, it is now key to the future of the legal profession.
Picture this scenario: you’ve been unfairly sacked, so you download an app and answer a series of questions.
A computer algorithm predicts you have a better than 80 per cent chance of winning your legal action for unfair dismissal and your law firm, confident of success, immediately and automatically pays out your claim. The matter is concluded with minimal human interference.
This is not the future. It is already taking place in Europe today. Technology is taking over many of the services traditionally provided by human lawyers.
This disruption is troubling for young law graduates who traditionally cut their teeth on the lower level with repetitive legal work that is now being performed by technology.
Does it mean the end of the legal profession is nigh? No, and that’s where bedside manner comes in.
Increasingly, the value of a lawyer isn’t just their legal knowledge – it’s their interpersonal skills. It’s their ability to relate in a human way to clients. It’s about having commercial skills and an understanding of how business is done, so that legal advice is not only technically correct, it is commercially sensible.
If someone is having a dispute with their ex-partner about who is going to get custody of their child, they’re not going to rely on an app or a website. They will want to talk to a real person and get good legal advice from an experienced and empathetic lawyer.
When a big business wants advice about structuring a major transaction, they’re probably not going to use a piece of software. They will want someone with commercial experience and an understanding of their business.
This is why we will always need human lawyers. Not for their technical expertise – although that is of course important – but for their interpersonal skills: their bedside manner.
This is something the best lawyers have always had, usually built up over decades of nurturing client relationships.
But at the same time that empathy, compassion, wisdom and common sense are becoming the main characteristics of a successful lawyer – law graduates no longer have the luxury of learning them on the job. They need those characteristics straight out of university.
Can we teach empathy or wisdom at law school? Well, we might not be able to teach it in a classroom, but we can give law students an opportunity to develop it.
At Bond University, for example, law students participating in our law clinics are given the opportunity to sit down with real clients with real problems and start to learn those skills by seeing them modelled by experienced practitioners.
They learn the importance of becoming the sort of person a client will trust and value. They learn that a lawyer is not just a source of expertise about the law, but a wise counsel – someone who is sought out for all sorts of advice.
Unfortunately, law schools have been struggling to adapt to industry disruption and the quickly evolving needs of employers.
Not because they do not appreciate the importance of evolving in response to changes in technology and the expectations of clients and employers, but because the regulation of legal education in Australia is still based on what we thought was important 25 years ago.
In order for a law degree to be recognised for the purposes of admission as a legal practitioner, it must meet a set of requirements that focus upon technical expertise and say nothing about empathy, interpersonal skills or commercial understanding.
Academics, practitioners and members of the judiciary are only just beginning to have conversations around this challenge.
In the meantime, all sorts of interesting new opportunities are opening up for law graduates.
New structures for the delivery of legal services – ‘NewLaw’ – are looking for innovative law graduates, more organisations want their own in-house lawyers, large advisory firms like Ernst & Young and KPMG are hiring, and start-up ventures need lawyers involved from the beginning.
A law degree is a still a valuable qualification, and there are plenty of opportunities for law school graduates who can build a true connection with their clients.
Heartless lawyers? Not any more.
Professor Nick James is executive dean of the Faculty of Law at Bond University and a former commercial lawyer.