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Legal technology: a chilling view of the future?

legal technologyA great deal has been said in recent years about the future of legal technology. With the advent of AI (artificial intelligence), some are predicting the appearance of “robo-lawyers” which will eventually make lawyers obsolete.

Others predict more of an evolution, with the standardisation and mechanisation of routine jobs delivering greater efficiencies. Probably the truth lies somewhere between the two. Many areas of legal work already employ technology in one form or another whilst other areas deliver services in the same way they’ve been delivered for the last hundred years.

So, what can we expect? Whilst pondering this question I came across the views of a well-respected legal academic and technological researcher. According to US law professor, Oliver Goodenough, it’s worthwhile categorising the developments. In his 2015 article in the Legal Technology Blog “Legal Technology 3.0”, he did so by describing three key phases of change:

  • 1.0 People empowerment within the existing system.
  • 2.0 People replacement.
  • 3.0 Re-design or replacement of the current system.

1.0 People empowerment.

In effect, we are already in version 1.0 territory. Practice management systems, document production, computer assisted legal research and e-discovery are now well-established. According to Goodenough, some of these systems can create more legal work than existed before. The ability to research from multiple sources of discoverable data means more associates or paralegals will be required to do the job thoroughly.

He may well have a point. However, here at LawWare, we are well aware that our own practice management system can save time, automate repetitive tasks and lead to cost savings.

2.0 People replacement.

Phase 2.0 legal technology applications are all about replacing people within the current system. An example of this is machine-learning in e-discovery which can potentially eliminate document review jobs.

Another good example is applications that integrate word processing with expert systems. Essentially, this means a contract documentation assembly tool that the public can use. Sales Account Managers could easily create the contract without the need for review by a legal expert. If you are firmly wedded to the status quo, this must sound very frightening indeed.

It gets worse. The obvious next extension of this is that legal services become a free give-away of a larger service offering. With an expert system in place, the legal components of domestic conveyancing could become a “free” software service from the agent handling the purchase or sale.

Apologies if I’m rattling a few cages here. Phase 2.0 is frightening for legal service providers but may well be welcomed by consumers. Whatever the case, these developments are still part and parcel of the existing legal infrastructure or an evolution of it.

3.0 Re-design or replacement of the current system.

legal technologyNow, if that didn’t sound frightening enough, Phase 3.0 will probably seem like Armageddon! Goodenough foresees a future where powerful technology for communication, modelling and execution will produce a major re-design or even the complete replacement of the current system. These could challenge the human lawyer as the key figure in the delivery of legal services. To me, this all sounds more like science fiction rather than science fact.

Next generation technology does threaten the role of the human lawyer. However, it also promises to usher in a new age in which people will have affordable and instant access to the law. Online dispute resolution is one of the key candidates in this new era. Already the work of Modria, in online dispute resolution for e-commerce, looks significantly different from the current court system.

From the perspective of modern practices, new technology will manage issues such as compliance, designing them in from the outset. The possibilities are endless.

Prognosis.

So, are we looking at the complete disappearance of the legal infrastructure as we know it? I’m not so sure. As society changes, the law and its methods of implementation change to reflect that.

For the last twenty years, legal practices have faced ever more demanding clients. This, allied to the emergence of alternative legal service providers means technology is an important means of addressing the new demands. The key factor in the future use of technology is that legal systems are designed around the people they serve – that means the clients, not the lawyers! For lawyers, now is the time to rethink how their businesses work, how they address client needs and how technology can help to shape a viable model for the future.

It’s a very exciting time to be in the legal industry and those firms which embrace technology from a client perspective will be the ones which prosper. Technology is not just a threat, it’s a mechanism for change that can impact positively on the bottom line.

I’m sure the robo-lawyer is a figment of science fiction and there will always be a need for the human touch. However, what I can do today on my smartphone was science fiction only ten years ago!

Mike O’Donnell, March 2017.

Mike O’Donnell is an experienced marketing professional who has spent much of his career working in and advising the legal profession. For further biographical details click this link.

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