One thing I’ve struggled to come to terms with over my life is the heart condition I’ve braved since I was a toddler. At the tender age of two, my family GP noticed that I had a heart murmur, but that I’d likely grow out of it. By my sixth birthday, I slept so deeply that I couldn’t wake myself up to use the bathroom, I was constantly out of breath and I often sported blue lips and fingernails. My harmless murmur had developed into Complete Heart Block – a life threatening condition which scrambles the signals from my brain to beat my heart on time. Just before Christmas of that year, I was fitted with a pacemaker to beat my heart for me which I’d need for the rest of my life.
That all sounds very clinical and straightforward, but I can tell you coming to terms with it hasn’t been. There are so many times I have wished I was normal, that I didn’t instinctively guard my chest upon physical contact. There have been so many moments I longed to be able to feel my heart race with joy or laugh without feeling a lump of metal grinding against my body. There are so many nights I have wept, mourning for the heart I never had.
Emotions aside, the technology in the pacemaker is pretty cool. It’s got a tiny little crystal in it which motion senses when I’m exercising and ups the electric shocks it sends through my heart. Just like an iPhone, it hooks up to a computer which can tell you everything about it from the amount of battery left in it to the voltage with which it shocks my heart. It can be programmed mimic a natural heart’s rhythm by speeding up during the day and slowing down during the evenings, and it manages to do all these things using an external, computer mouse shaped reader which sits on my chest. It’s a miracle that we have technology like this, I just wish I didn’t have to deal with it.
While this is still a very raw subject for me, I often think our attitudes towards legal technology are the same. We hear about the tireless efforts of firms implementing innovation strategies but at the end of the day, we are creatures of habit and resistant to change at the ground level. Or maybe there’s something more to it. Maybe we’re scared that lawyers will go the same way as checkout operators or many factory workers and be made completely redundant. Or maybe it’s just ignorance or uncertainty; I can’t say that I’ve learned a single thing about legal technology in my four years at law school.
It’s also interesting to think about how this kind of technology may impact law students. I recently read an article by a psychiatrist suggesting that the rise of legal tech may be the reason behind our mental illness epidemic. Basically, his argument went that it was no wonder law students were getting depressed after tirelessly studying for anywhere between three to seven years (in some cases) only to find that their job had been taken by a computer. I’m not sure I buy it, but it may well be one thing which factors into this systemic issue in desperate need of address.
Despite this, after doing a bit of reading into different kinds of legal tech, I’m won over. Technology like e-discovery would have made my first legal job working as an assistant in a personal injury law firm so much easier. I remember one of the lawyers asking me to rifle through a pile of clinical notes as high as my waist (and I measure 5’10) to find any mention of the client’s right knee. We just wanted to cover our bases that the client hadn’t suffered from any knee related issues prior to their car accident. But it took me ages and I remember dreading coming into work every day for the entire week because I knew my hours would be filled trying to decipher indiscernible doctors’ ‘handwriting’ looking for something which I didn’t even know was there. Now with e-discovery, that time can be put to better use on tasks which require strategy or decision making, tasks technology can’t do.
At the end of the day, I’m just a law student but I doubt that law will ever become a bygone profession. It’s people-centred and requires empathy and compassion to fully understand client needs and meet expectations. I don’t think we’ll ever get to the point of being able to automate the feeling of reassurance from a firm handshake or the perspective which only comes with many years of experience fielding emotions, competing interests and outcomes.
Yes, legal tech is a disruptor in the way the we operate. But not all disruptions are bad and sometimes we need to remind ourselves of this. Despite my mother asking every time we go to the hospital where the off switch is on my pacemaker, I’m sure she’s happier to have this disruption in her life than not (or at least I hope she is).
So instead of being ambivalent towards legal tech, we should embrace it. In fact, we need to embrace it otherwise our profession just won’t survive. I can’t see a way we’ll be able to face the problems of the future without the technology of the future. Innovation in our field is really a testament to how we’ve been able to keep the heart beating in our age-old profession.
As for me, I yearn for the day when the sun shines and I can wear a top which reveals my scar and not let the grind of metal dampen my smile. When the breeze blows through my hair and I don’t have a care in the world. And on that day, I hope I can put aside the sadness of needing a pacemaker and feel grateful that I have something which reminds me every day of what a blessing it is to be alive.
Flynne Tytherleigh is a law student at Monash University and is the owner of men's accessories brand PocketMan.