Nick Whitehouse
08 January 2018

Legalpreneurs Spotlight - Nick Whitehouse

Published on 08 January 2018

Capitalising on exponential disruption

For Nick Whitehouse, the future for law has been painted as far too bleak. As Chief Digital Officer for MinterEllisonRuddWatts in New Zealand, Nick is charged with readying the firm for a rapidly evolving future. Among these initiatives is an artificial intelligence joint venture, McCarthyFinch, which came from a collaboration between MinterEllisonRuddWatts and venture capital firm Goat Ventures.

“Far from being at the mercy of disruption, MinterEllisonRuddWatts is in a position to capitalize on the opportunities disruption brings,” said Nick. However, it is essential to act now and act swiftly. “You simply cannot prepare soon enough. I’ve worked in television, telecommunications, IT and the legal industries, all of which have been disrupted, some more so than others, some in painful ways. What I have seen first-hand across all these industries is how raw disruption becomes by delaying your response or denying it.”

Witnessing the effects of disruption on multiple industries has profoundly affected his thinking. 

“Controlling your destiny may result in some short term pain. It may not. Rest assured you will feel far more pain when you are at the mercy of a disrupted market. For MinterEllisonRuddWatts, this has seen us rapidly execute a digital strategy focused on improving, optimising and innovating. McCarthyFinch, an artificial intelligence joint venture, was one of the results, and has seen some 45 lawyers working in ‘startup’ mode with AI.” 

Of all the opportunities disruption offers, Nick is excited by the prospect of improving access to justice. 

“An estimated 600,000 Australians and New Zealanders are unable to protect their legal rights every year, either through lack of financial means or understanding of the legal process. If LegalTech can help those in need to access justice, that’s a great outcome.”

“Do I see these innovations as a threat to the profession? Only to the degree that the profession resists change. I can’t say I was working in the legal profession when email came out, but I often wonder if email was seen as threatening as LegalTech is now?

“The profession will evolve, as it has done before. Work will change – some work will stop, other work will start, and some work will increase. It’s important that lawyers assess what clients value the most from their engagements as this is what will drive the change.”

As for technological disruption and its impact on the legal profession, Nick had several predictions.

“Change is often conceptualized as linear, but it is not. It is exponential. What was half as good yesterday will be twice as good tomorrow. This makes looking into the future difficult and perhaps even foolish. What is most important is one’s ability to adapt to change.”

With this caveat in mind, Nick had four major predictions: 

  1. Online courtrooms will be established in a number of countries to deal with small claims and disputes. 
  2. While business complexity will increase, most transactional contracts will become “smart contracts”, monitoring and updating themselves with little human intervention. This may or may not involve the use of blockchain.
  3. The presently underserviced consumer mass-market will be increasingly monetised through automated general legal advice, potentially adding tens of billions of dollars of new legal spend to the industry each year. 
  4. The billable hour will be subsumed by fixed fee arrangements, forever changing the traditional law firm model. As a result, recognition and rewards will change within the firm, alongside services and how they’re offered. “As legal work is commoditized through ever increasing technological advancement, firms may need to resist the rise of global super firms focused on executing commodity work at a lower price,” said Nick. “Relationships, trust and working in concert with technology will be far more important.”  

For new lawyers entering the profession, Nick was quite optimistic.

“Through McCarthyFinch, I’ve been lucky to work with many bright young lawyers and students. I’ve never once worried about their futures – they’re open-minded, hard-working and ready for change. Regardless of what they’re doing, they’re going to do it well.” 

Speaking directly to new lawyers, Nick advised persistence and adaptability.

“If you are choosing a traditional firm, be very choosy. Make sure the firm sees you as more than just a body in their factory. Whilst technical skills are often what firms look for, this isn’t what will make you a great lawyer over the next 5 – 10 years. It will be your ability to be commercial, creative, adaptable, build trust and exploit technology to your advantage. Persist. There will be a changing of the guard, and some will feel threatened by you while others simply won’t have the skills to manage you.”

For firms, Nick cautioned against wasting the talent of those entering the profession.

“Many lawyers entering the profession have double majors, skills and experience which other businesses would kill for. Is photocopying really getting the best out of them when there’s an endless amount of business analysis, project management, user experience, change management and training that could be done within your own firm?”

He also praised the Centre for Legal Innovation for its role in demystifying disruption and driving the conversation around how best to adapt to change. 

“CLI does a great job in helping the profession conceptualise these changes in a less daunting way, shining a light on the facts and connecting people. We need more voices supporting change and creating the future.”

 

If you’re in a leadership or management role in the legal industry and want to understand the changes taking place that Nick raised in this Spotlight, and how they apply to you, then don't miss the Centre for Legal Innovation's inaugural Digital Legal Practice and Innovation Masterclass on 23 and 24 February 2018 in Sydney.

Leading law firm practitioners and consultants will facilitate the Masterclass and discuss how these changes are shaping a new legal industry, new ways to practise law, new legal tech tools to support how legal professionals work, and the new legal workforce needed to make it happen. Register today.