The Study of Law and Technology

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Every lawyer’s experience of law school is different. If you grew up in a family of lawyers, I imagine this provided some sort of advantage at least in terms of knowing what the path to law and practice looked like. I am from a family of engineers, quantity surveyors and architects, and so law was a completely new foray. Before making the decision to do law, I had a six-month stint trying out Architecture, trying to follow in my brother’s footsteps; that didn’t go so well and my lecturer and I quickly agreed that my model home design was not my pièce de résistance! I did however score all points for effort and hours burning the midnight oil.

How I ended up studying law is down to encouragement from my sister in law. She is an IP lawyer and the way in which she handled matters was just amazing to watch. After she casually suggested I consider law, I could feel my blood pumping at the thought of being in a court room and suddenly it all seemed to make sense. Hindsight is really 20/20. Years later my mother would confirm that she always thought I was suited to study law but she very carefully decided to withhold her insight so as not to interfere with destiny, and she was right, as I found my path on my own. My father, a man who has accomplished a great deal and who is a civil engineer by profession, took some convincing mainly because he genuinely seemed surprised by the idea. I guess it was at that moment that the penny dropped for him; suddenly it was clear why I never really took to science-based subjects in high school. Of course, my grades were nonetheless good as I am after all an alumnus of The Alliance High School in Kenya; The School we love the most (our anthem), is best equated to Eton College in terms of the many well-known alumni it has churned out in the last 94 years since it came into existence.

I found the whole experience of law school exhilarating and frustrating in equal measure. The former because I watched all the usual exciting legal dramas like Boston Legal which remains my all-time favourite; credit to James Spader, now well known for his portrayal of fictional character Raymond Reddington, for a spectacular performance and so I imagined that from my first year to the last it would be full of legal drama exuberance that would lead to a successful corporate career with files as thin as a couple of A4 sheets whilst earning ‘mega-bucks’. In the real world, the only time a file is that thin is when it is gallantly displayed on the shelf at the stationery shop.

The frustrating side of law school was the fact that there was little to comment on in terms of technology available to enhance the whole experience. I am reasonably competent in computing, having considered it as a possible career to follow and later undertaking the first year of study towards a computer science degree, and so I would have enjoyed a bit more of technology to help with the whole learning journey. Just on that note, computing or anything in that line has been catapulted into being one of the most valuable careers to follow so I do wonder sometimes if I made the wrong choice. But then again, the thrill of being on your feet in a court room is quite a feeling that I think only lawyers understand. I would urge all aspiring advocates and non-lawyers to watch a film called “My Cousin Vinny” which really breaks down the art of advocacy into a few memorable scenes.

Technology available at the time was centred around legal research databases and tools to check for plagiarism. I applaud these tools based on the amazing background functions to get them to be as effective as they were but to a non-coder, this means nothing other than “I just want to find the perfect case to support my argument”. I take a pause here to mention a less well-known research database, JustCite. Put simply, their tool introduced a pictorial and colour-coded precedent map. In one glance, you could see which had applied the ratio decidendi of a leading case and you could follow the map in a few clicks to find that perfect case without needing to spend a few minutes reading the summary.

Until the late 2012, there was little in the way of other tools to enhance the experience. Study groups were largely conducted face to face, collaboration with lecturers was limited, and access to other legal professionals was also not as straightforward as it could have been. It was a different time, but it worked. The world of today and the next 15 years, requires a different approach in my view.

What does the future hold

Firstly, #edtech has come out as a new evolving area that is rapidly developing amazing tools. For example, thelawyerportal is marketed as being the definitive resource for everyone considering a career in law, whatever their stage or background. There are clear benefits to having such a resource where all stages are rolled into one. Secondly, we now live in a digital age where there is information overflow. We need reliable tools that can help compress all of that into a reliable database to rely on. Finally, I believe we shall inevitably see a change as to how the law is taught due to the advent of these and other tools. I am about to introduce a controversial concept so stay with me.

The effectiveness of technology in the legal space means that certain tasks conducted by paralegals would inevitably be wiped out thus reducing the workload and need for paralegals at least in the context of manual processes. There is a need to consider whether it makes sense to continue teaching students reserved legal activities if they might not be able to carry out some of it in the future. To be clear, I am talking about the more archaic tasks involved in legal practice as paralegals are a valuable resource for any firm. An extension of this argument is whether the law school curriculum, including vocational training courses, should still include nearly everything there is to know about legal practice rather than creating niche spaces within the profession to account for how the profession will be affected by technological advancements. Competition for jobs remains at an all-time high, with a significant number of law graduates being under-employed working in non-legal sectors waiting for their opportune moment to kickstart their legal career. Some give up along the way, a blessing for some, or soul crushing depending on how much dollar you sunk into your pursuit. If I have no interest in taking on reserved work, should I still sink thousands into a course that will teach me about reserved legal activities or should I instead focus on a course that matches my interests bearing in mind the highly competitive nature of the legal jobs market.

Smart contracts (self-executing programs where the software can implement various obligations of each party) are not too far away from being commonplace. The automation of legal processes means that at least 25% of the work done by lawyers will no longer need human support and working from home, brings on the possibility of a lot of the work being seconded to individuals who can use technology to process various tasks. Think of what legal practice will look like 15 to 20 years from now and working backwards, it isn’t too hard to see what we need to start doing today to ensure that law students are prepared for that future. A quick glance at my LinkedIn feed over the past few weeks shows that many lawyers have conducted hearings remotely via skype or other video conferencing tools, including complex commercial litigation cases worth millions of pounds. The general sense has been that the experience has worked out just fine with judges finding it easier to follow the evidence at hand. It is not crazy to suggest that this is now going to be the new norm. What better way to convince the legal market, known for its notoriousness in failing to adapt, when the decision makers develop a preference for modern ways of working. Advocacy via skype is not quite what I was taught at the Bar as being a day to day occurrence, but here we are, and one thing is for sure, the legal profession will now be looking to bring on large scale changes to operations. Countries like Estonia have a fully digitised and paper-free justice system with trials on an AI robot judge ongoing; It is time for the UK justice system to adapt and catch up. In my view, we need to go a step further and change how law students are learning and offer more opportunities that reflect the AI driven world in which graduates will find themselves in after graduation.

Kevin Karue, CEO Lifeium.

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