‘Better-enabled lawyers’ will drive in-house teams forward in age of tech
In conversation with Lawyers Weekly, NAB general counsel Sharon Cook says that legal teams are going to be “augmented and enhanced” by emerging technology – something she is very excited about.
Speaking recently on an episode of LawTech Talks, produced in partnership with Thomson Reuters, Ms Cook (pictured) reflected that she has, in 30 years of practice, “never seen such a dramatic pace of change” in Australia’s legal profession, as it pertains to the advent and mainstreaming of technology.
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“The pace of change just gets faster and faster. It’s terrifying in a way but also very exciting and presents our lawyers, and the people associated with the lawyers, with incredible opportunities for the future,” she mused.
“And, it’s frankly energising.”
Recent technological developments for legal professionals are some of the most exciting she has ever seen, she noted, adding that she cannot wait to see how her legal team embraces them.
When asked whether she sees corporate law departments looking vastly different moving forward to what they have been in years gone by, Ms Cook responded that while there may be a different vibe to such departments, she doesn’t think the number of staff will shift.
“I want to scotch the suggestion that technology means you’ll have fewer lawyers. It just means you will have better-enabled lawyers,” she submitted.
“So, we’ll have a similar number of lawyers and people supporting lawyers, but the sort of work that our lawyers will be doing, and the kind of skills that we’ll be expecting from our lawyers into the next decade, will be totally different.”
“What we see is our lawyers having sort of two roles: the first is that they’re advising the business, and that’s all the usual sort of lawyer stuff. But, as it applies now to technology and AI, we’ll need to be experts in cyber security and privacy and copyright data security, ethical safeguards, confidentiality, legal, professional privilege,” she outlined.
“The toolkit that lawyers have [will be] updated for this new world of technology, [and] lawyers will need to apply it to what they’re doing and use technology to do their roles better and separately, and use technology to help customers and stakeholders in the business.”
“Lawyers just can’t sit back and advise. They need to roll up their sleeves, get their hands dirty and get involved in the technology themselves,” she argued.
Ms Cook agreed with the suggestion that the day-to-day for in-house lawyers will also look notably different moving forward, pointing to the example of her team at NAB, which recently restructured to have three executives reporting to her from the law department, including one in a newly created role of executive of digital and technology, legal, and operations.
“That is not something that I could have imagined, even two or three years ago, that I would have as a direct report to me as the general counsel of NAB,” she mused.
“We’ve got the technology lawyers, the commercial lawyers, a lot of allied professionals, legal technologists, people who are good at process optimisation, project managers, change experts, all that sort of thing. They all sit reporting to that executive who reports to me, and there’ll be 40 or 50 people who are doing that, supporting the whole of the legal function. That’s a huge change for the way that we both organise the in-house legal team at NAB, and also mindset.”
In the discussion of shifting mindsets across the law department, Ms Cook said her team has learnt that it is critical to understand what the problem that requires solving “rather than going in on your great white horse” waving around the latest technology. Asking what can be done to help has to be the first step, she noted.
“Now, we ask the lawyers what is causing grief on a day-to-day basis? What do you need help with? Maybe we can help with technology. We’ve learnt that’s the best way to get people to change their mindset,” she advised.
Moreover, Ms Cook continued, focusing the team’s application of technology on the more senior professionals is a mistake.
“It’s got to be all of the people in your team,” she stressed, “because it is often the more junior people that recognise the benefit of technology and are also facing the day-to-day problems that technology can help you solve. So, it’s an approach that you need to have across the entire legal team – and, of course, you’ve got to have the support of the leader (which my team has with me)”.
Reflecting on her experience and department, Ms Cook concluded that she loves that legal teams will “continue to be an incredibly important part of banks”.
“They’re going to be augmented and enhanced by whatever technology comes our way, and I’m very excited about that,” she said.
“I heard a great quote the other day: technology won’t replace lawyers, but lawyers who don’t embrace technology will be replaced by lawyers who do.”
NB: This transcript has been edited slightly for publishing purposes. You can listen to the full episode here: