The Future of Law: New South Wales weighs in

The Law Society of New South Wales has added its contribution to studies of what is coming to legal services with The Future of Law and Innovation in the Profession (flip). This followed a commission inquiry inspired by the American Bar Association’s equivalent. It has given rise to a report which is comparable – though broader –  to similar publications from the Law Society of England and Wales and Singapore. Its conclusions are broadly similar: we have a global trend here.

The report has a strong chapter on ‘drivers of change’ – particularly in the commercial sector where clients in the form of in-house legal departments are becoming more demanding both about what they want to receive and what they are willing to pay. It also covers ‘new models of practice’, very similar to those evident in the US and UK. It documents various variants of virtual practice. A further chapter on legal technology again covers similar ground to the Anglo-American reports. The  impact of artificial intelligence is raised as you would expect with coverage of Ross Intelligence.

A major recommendation is the establishment of a centre for legal innovation projects which a brief to:

  •         facilitate innovation;
  •         conduct research into regulatory, ethical and educational issues
  •         foster an innovation culture (which presumably means helping    weaker practices to keep up)
  •         encourage partnerships.

This looks very much like the ABA’s Center for Innovation which arose from the recommendations of its Commission on the Future. This is already in existence and it would be really desirable if similar institutions were established around the world.

The report has some nice touches. It reproduces two graphs from a blog by Svetlana Sicular nicely entitled ‘Magic Realism of Big Data’ which set out the ‘Gartner Hype Curve’ in relation to emerging technology. You can get the flavour of the argument by her categorisation of the phases:

  • technology trigger
  • peak of inflated expectations
  • trough of disillusionment
  • slope of enlightenment
  • plateau of productivity.

A witness to the commission, the perceptive Noric Dilanchian from Sydney, observed to the commission ‘We are presently at the peak of the hype curve for artificial intelligence and legal apps.’ ‘ If accurate’, says the commission, ‘this means that the “real” activity will shortly be seen’. The value of this approach is that it acknowledges – and integrates – both the hype about technology and the actuality.

The report sets out a list of innovative technologies and practices shaping the future which provides a useful checklist of one assessment of relevant developments:

  • automated document assembly
  • relentless connectivity
  • the electronic legal marketplace
  • e-learning
  • online legal guidance
  • legal open-sourcing
  • closed legal communities
  • workflow and project management
  • embedded legal knowledge (defined as denoting ‘objects, structures or systems that are designed for automatic compliance with regulations’)
  • online dispute resolution
  • intelligent legal search
  • big data
  • artificial intelligence-based problem solving.

Witnesses to the commission drop fascinating hints as to the future. A slight defect in the evidence-gathering model – and the sensitivity of a Law Society for the full range of its membership – is that these are not followed up. For example, there is the usual agonising over the future of the billable hour and a reference to the debate about whether the traditional law ‘Cravath’ pyramid model of legal partnerships – these are issues causing distress to lawyers all around the world. No conclusions though.

Another difficulty with the report is that the implied audience changes. The technology chapters are presumably directed at the legal profession itself, particularly those in smaller practices struggling to keep up with developments. The Chapter on Community Needs and Funding is, however, clearly directed at government and is largely a protest against planned Commonwealth cuts to community legal centre budgets of 30 per cent due in July. It may be that this chapter has had an effect. It was reported earlier this week that the State government was stepping in with some additional funding. Nevertheless, the change in focus is a bit confusing.

In addition, some of the access to justice recommendations seem a bit haphazard. There is, for example, a recommendation that the Law Society sponsor an annual hackathon ‘to harness enthusiasm and expertise to help legal assistance providers find innovative solutions to specific problems’. This is not necessarily a bad idea and hackathons are very trendy. But, to be of much effect, they need to take place within some sort of wider supportive context. Otherwise, fired-up, redbull-fuelled participants are going to work out that there is not much point in giving their all over an adrenaline-filled weekend to a process that is little more than presenting window dressing for a concern with access to justice.

The report opens with an equation of change for lawyers as comparable with some pretty major recent world events:

The world watched as apparently immutable institutions unravelled. British citizens defied expectations to vote for Brexit. US citizens elected Donald Trump  … Over the same period, the peer to peer sharing economy was continuing to flourish … contradictions spilled into all areas of life … In late 2015, the Council of the Law Society of New South Wales saw an acceleration in the pace of change affecting the legal profession …

All a Brit can add is that if misguided nostalgia for a time that never existed can take the UK into the abyss, then the legal profession had better get its act together.

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