Opinion Embrace robotic disruption but don’t lose your human skills

Technology is rapidly changing the legal profession so lawyers need to focus on what they can provide that a machine cannot, writes Michael Legg. 

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OPINION: Technology has started to become a source of angst for current and future lawyers. Concern follows from headlines such as “Robots replace lawyers” and “Machines replace lawyers” telling stories of elation at the end of lawyers.

However, as Robert Bolt said through the voice of Thomas More in A Man For All Seasons, if you cut down all the laws “d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow?”

The same can be said in response to cutting down all the lawyers.

Lawyers, in their many roles – writing our laws, defending our laws, representing people, including the accused, resolving disputes and facilitating commerce – are essential to civil society.

While there is no doubt technology will change many legal roles, the need for lawyers will continue because the need for law continues.

As a starting point, lawyers need to be able to use technology as a tool to facilitate what they do. The Law Society of NSW report The Future of Law and Innovation in the Profession says adopting technology will make lawyers “far more effective and efficient”.

Document automation, data management, online legal resources and cloud computing can be used by lawyers in a range of roles, from global law firm to sole practitioner, to deliver legal services. Technology can also allow lawyers to better understand their own businesses to develop more accurate budgets and alternative fee arrangements.

Lawyers also need to be the disrupters. For many interactions with the law, technology will give a good enough service for the price that many people will prefer technology.

Lawyer labour costs will be too high to be competitive. However, lawyers and those with legal training can take the lead on automating law.

Rather than wait for someone else to see an opportunity to hive off a piece of high-volume legal work and commoditise it, lawyers should be actively seeking to identify opportunities to promote access to legal services. Lawyers can recreate the legal market place.

Lawyers also need to focus on what they can provide that a machine cannot. Previously this was expertise. Expertise is still important but technology will allow machines to become competent at more and more areas.

Initially this will be the more straightforward and repetitive interactions with law, but it will increasingly reach into more complicated areas.

The human expert lawyer may maintain an edge in dealing with novel issues and developing creative solutions.

Technology may also have difficulty in replicating that aspect of legal decision-making that requires judgment and discretion. This is not to say technology cannot provide tools to assist the lawyer.

There are other aspects of the legal profession where the human lawyer has an advantage. The first is trust. This is part personal relationship and commitment to the client, but also driven by ethics and the fiduciary norm.

For many years prior to the increased capabilities of technology, management consultants and motivational speakers had extolled the benefit of establishing a client relationship that leads to being the trusted adviser. Now it is not just good business, but essential to the lawyer’s role.

The ethics rules require a lawyer to “act in the best interests of a client”. The lawyer must maintain the client’s confidences and their communications are protected by legal professional privilege.

As a fiduciary, the lawyer is held to the highest standards of honour and must avoid conflicts of interest. But the ethics rules also impose a duty to the court and the administration of justice. These obligations are crucial to what makes law a profession and to trust between the lawyer and client, but also the lawyer and society.

The second aspect is empathy and understanding.

While crucial to assisting the client who has been injured or wronged, they apply to any human interaction where one person seeks to assist another.

The lawyers of the future need expertise and they need to embrace technology to assist them in performing their role. But lawyers also need strong client-focused skills combined with the highest integrity and comprehension of their ethical responsibilities.

Michael Legg is Associate Professor of Law at UNSW.

This article was originally published in The Australian.