Law, the digital age and change to come

By Shanti Berggren|30 October 2018

In-house counsel need to determine what they will do differently and better than the generation that came before, asks Optus Legal general counsel Shanti Berggren.

This question is as old as time. It speaks to our innate drive for constant progress. For bigger and better things. And it’s the question I posed a few months ago as the guest speaker at the University of Adelaide Law School Prize Evening.

Faced with such a talented young audience, already so capable and accomplished, I discussed what might define this next generation of lawyers as unique agents of change within our profession. I firmly believe the answer is centred around technology – specifically, using technology in a meaningful way to improve the practice of law.

Reimagining the legal ecosystem

The legal profession is undergoing change at a pace never previously recorded, fuelled by the evolving expectations of clients and rapid advances in technology. Such advances include cloud computing, artificial intelligence, electronic document management systems, online dispute resolution, virtual law firms, electronic courts, social media and blockchain – just to mention a few.

Technology has upended predictable career paths and is recasting how, for whom, with whom, and on what terms many lawyers will work. It is influencing every segment of our legal ecosystem, from its workforce, the division of labour, economics, structure, and service providers, to skillsets, career trajectories; education and training, and customer expectations.

It is technology that facilitates our Optus Legal Team operating nationally allowing some of our lawyers to live and work away from our Sydney headquarters.

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In short, technology is changing legal culture and what it means to be a lawyer. But how should that change be managed?

Navigating the inevitable

We are at a crossroads where traditional ways of working are merging with new ones. Some industries are quicker than others to adapt. The same goes for people.

Law has been at the slower end of the pack. As a profession steeped in tradition, this is hardly surprising – but if the sector is to preserve its relevance and agency, it is critical that we embrace change in a constructive, sustainable way.

Right now, there is a backdrop of well-ingrained law practices that tout ‘cutting-edge technology’, but don’t necessarily provide a powerful voice to the digital champions within the firm. It is a source of constant tension that frustrates me – and is unlikely to be settled by my generation of lawyers because we didn’t grow up with a technology-partner mindset.

The next generation are inheriting the practice of law from a cohort who spent hours in the library, thumbing our way through cards stacked in long narrow wooden drawers. We didn’t grow up with computers. This unfamiliarity, coupled with strong trepidation over changing cost models, has created a certain angst with technology that threatens to limit the growth of the industry. But this mindset is both unhelpful and inaccurate.

In August of 2017 Equifax had a data breach – caused by hackers exploiting their web application – that put 143 million Americans at financial risk for the rest of their lives because details of their name, social security numbers, DOB, address and some drivers license numbers had been compromised. Outcomes from the breach ranged from the CSO being sacked, 24 class action law suits being filed and Equifax spending US$87.5million dollars responding to the attack on multiple levels.

This demonstrates how the ‘Henny Penny’ panic that technology will diminish or replace the role of lawyers is simply not true. Indeed, just the opposite: the vulnerability of our monumental reliance on technology creates not only the perfect storm for hacking, but also the perfect storm for new legal opportunities in the technology field.

Driving meaningful change

We will always need good lawyers – but good lawyers today need to have a spectrum of other talents ignited by their legal skills. Good lawyers today must be first responders, problem solvers, project managers, counsellors, risk managers, change managers; all the time exercising judgment, legal expertise, and business acumen against an ever-changing and challenging landscape.

The ‘us and them’, the ‘lawyers and non-lawyers’ worldview that built lawyer silos is slowly being renovated by an interdisciplinary approach to problem solving – where diverse professional competencies, enabled by technology, solve complex business challenges.

This is the key. We must strive to leverage technology in a meaningful way, freeing ourselves from monotonous work to focus on more innovative and strategic work. We must identify which skills, old and new, will be required to adapt to the changes in law happening today, caused by a tricky mix of technology and human behaviour.

Luckily, our younger generations are well equipped to handle such a challenge. For them, technology is as natural as breathing. They know how to partner with technology in a way that supports – not hinders – collaboration, efficiency and creativity. They will play a critical role in humanising technology for those who are indifferent or insecure about the unknown.

But the industry as a whole must step up and help pave the way. Whether it’s firms revaluating businesses and revenue models, supporting internal change agents, or breaking down silos and embracing interdisciplinary collaboration – things need to change. The future of the legal profession depends on it.

Shanti Berggren is the general counsel of Optus Legal. 

Law, the digital age and change to come
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