New Zealand Law Society - The future is ours to invent

The future is ours to invent

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What is the real value we bring as lawyers? This was the question posed by renowned legal futurist Professor Richard Susskind at the recent Government Legal Conference in Wellington.

He urged lawyers not to confuse the way they deliver services with the value they bring. The value they bring is the use of their knowledge and experience for the benefit of their client and he invited delegates to take a step back and think: “What are new ways of delivering this using technology?”

Professor Susskind anticipates more changes in the next 10 years than have been seen in the past century in the legal services market.

‘Alarming views’

In 1996, he predicted that the primary way lawyers would communicate with their clients in future was via email. It seems self-evident now, but at the time, the Law Society of England and Wales told him he didn’t understand confidentiality and that he shouldn’t promote his alarming views publicly.

Noting that every two years there is a doubling of computer processing power, Professor Susskind predicted that by 2021, the average desktop PC would be able to process at the speed of the human brain. By 2050, the average desktop computer will have more processing power than all of humanity.

In the 1980s, Professor Susskind completed his doctorate in artificial intelligence and the law. He asks the question “what is the nature of legal reasoning that can’t be replicated by artificial intelligence?”

The technology developed by IBM that allowed their computer Deep Blue to beat world chess champion Garry Kasparov in 1997 didn’t have the creativity or flair of a human chess player but its brute computing power won.

This technology has been applied in the field of medical diagnostics where computers can now make more accurate diagnoses than the best doctors and is now being applied in law.

Huge opportunities

We are in the middle of a transformation as digitisation changes our world. Law is one of the most information and document intensive industries and there are huge opportunities to use technology to perform many of the current legal tasks.

Professor Susskind sees Twitter as a transformative communication tool and uses it as his primary means of keeping in contact with his business and professional colleagues. He challenges lawyers to get on board and explore new ways to collaborate using social media networks.

The universal pressure to spend less, insource more and have greater focus on compliance requires either a strategy of efficiency to cut costs or a strategy of collaboration where parties come together and collaborate to share the costs of legal services.

Resistance to the high cost of lawyering for repetitive, low value work suggests the solution will be to break down legal problems and appropriately engineer them – what economists call disaggregation.

Professor Susskind sees genuine opportunities for better access to justice and delivering clients better value. There are now 16 different ways of delivering legal services in the United Kingdom including legal process outsourcing (eg, to India and South Africa), near sourcing (UK firms setting up offices in Northern Ireland), home-sourcing, delawyering, insourcing and more which are realising savings of 40-50% in legal costs.

Professor Susskind is the information technology advisor to the United Kingdom’s Chief Justice. He has been tasked with finding digital solutions to low-value disputes where the court process is too expensive, too slow and too hard to negotiate.

Online court

His recommendation is to set up ‘Her Majesty’s Online Court’ which would allow judges to decide cases on the papers and hold any discussions by teleconference. An online facilitator trained in mediation would evaluate cases to see where issues are and whether they should come before the judges and would propose solutions.

The online system would include simple questions and flowcharts for parties to understand their entitlements and options. A current version of an online dispute process is that used by eBay where 60 million disputes are resolved online by negotiation every year.

Professor Susskind ended his powerful address with these words: “Our obligation to the next generation of lawyers is to embrace and build a technological legacy that will enable better access to justice and delivery of services to clients. All professions are changing. The opportunity to change is given to very few generations of lawyers. The current generation of lawyers has exciting opportunities to engineer the future. The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”

He finished by challenging the government lawyers in the room to invent the future for the way they deliver government legal services.

As seems appropriate for this pioneer in technology, Professor Susskind was not in the room to deliver his message. He was at home in London presenting via Skype but as he pointed out, the technology he embraces allows him to be anywhere in the world.

Helen Mackay is the Executive Officer of the In-house Lawyers Association of New Zealand (ILANZ), a section of the New Zealand Law Society.

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