13 September 2018

What does the #futureoflaw have in store? Highlights from the 2018 AI in Legal Practice Summit

Published on 13 September 2018

In the sold out second Centre for Legal Innovation (CLI) Artificial Intelligence in Legal Practice Summit, one question loomed large: how can the legal industry change to meet the expectations of clients and employees? How will legal practice change? Will the future be filled with self-service legal chatbots, automated documents and online courtrooms? Will data analytics dominate legal decision making and determine our appetite for risk management? Will all legal transactions be made using blockchain? Will law firm business models look more like start-ups? And how will all of this shape the future legal workforce?

The AI in Legal Practice Summit continued the tradition it began with its launch last year by providing a forum for open, constructive and creative discussion of how artificial intelligence is impacting all those working in the legal industry, and  focusing on how they can practically adapt and benefit. Hosted by the College of Law Sydney City, the second AI Summit was attended by over 100 solicitors and barristers (in-house, government and private practice), bankers, academics, consultants, business analysts, software developers, operations managers, business managers, IT, innovation, legal aid and community legal centres reflecting the diverse expertise is in the contemporary legal marketplace from all around Australia and New Zealand.

The opening plenary session met the question many lawyers are asking head on, with the topic, ‘Between AI and LegalTech, what’s really left for lawyers to do?’

“Technology is just a solution, a means of more efficient service delivery to clients,” said Caryn Sandler, Partner and Chief Knowledge and Innovation Officer at Gilbert + Tobin. “More importantly, clients are asking for technology because demands on them are increasing.”

Marcus McCarthy, Principal of Nexus Law Group, agreed; technology is merely an aid to a good lawyer.

“Lawyering occurs in the zone of bespoke advice, of humanity. AI can’t work in this zone. The low value routine work is where AI will work,” said Marcus. “Lawyers can leverage these tools, skill up and get better at being human, having good relationships with their clients, and delivering solutions.”

James Odell, Elevate Services’ Managing Director for Australia and the Asia Pacific, agreed. He argued that in this changing environment, it is important to not define oneself as a lawyer “too narrowly.”

“We can look at other industries for a blueprint to see how they dealt with change – for example, investment banking, which has changed profoundly but is still going.”

James knows well what it’s like to rethink how lawyers work.

“We asked ourselves, if you were to start a law firm from scratch, what would it look like? So we designed Hamilton Locke, which only employs senior lawyers, works entirely in the cloud with optimised processes. Our proof is in the profit margins,” said James.

“For young people, technology presents lots of opportunities,” said CLI Research Fellow Nicola Atkinson. The question, she suggested, lies in how the profession looks to develop its young lawyers. “How will this fit with the current speed of change in the industry? This might be a threat to their engagement. Young lawyers could become frustrated with the pace at which technology is taken up. But there is an opportunity in this new world to get back to the law.”

“I think there’s a real need for senior lawyers to step up and mentor juniors,” said Marcus. “The best thing you can do is teach them how to be good lawyers, have empathy, and be better human beings. A lot of this technology is about client engagement.”

Major predictions by the panel included improved client self-education by way of AI, with flow on implications for access to justice.

“AI that allows clients to formulate their problem well before they approach a lawyer will improve access to justice,” said Marcus. “AI could build really good systems that give some direction before clients actually speak to bespoke lawyers.”

“I think we’ll see more focus on data, and how it is used to help clients,” said Nicola.

For lawyers and legal business professionals looking to drive innovation by founding a legal startup or their own legaltech, two  sessions featured practical advice from current legaltech/new lawfounders.

“Don’t build a custom product too early,” said Dom Woolrych, CEO of LawPath. “We spent a lot of time building custom products without scoping it properly. When you start off, use as many third-party products and sources as possible. You’ll find the way that your customers use your product is different from the way you thought they would use it. If you have a plug and play, you can go in and change things to a different iteration.”

A common question for startup founders is whether ideas should be developed in “stealth” mode to avoid the risk of having projects stolen.

Joe Al Khayat, Co-Founder of Resolve Disputes Online, felt this concern was often given too much weight.

“Do first. Find your place in the legal marketplace. Don’t worry about your product being copied. If someone copying your idea means failure, then you’re probably in the wrong space,” said Joe. “Get a bit of traction, build out your product and go to market.”

The conservative nature of the legal industry was identified as a potential challenge for legalpreneurs.

“I was naïve about the reception I’d get from the legal industry,” said Demetrio Zema, Founder and Director of Law Squared. “Law is such a risk-averse industry. Clients believed in the model, but law firms struggle to believe in the model and be a part of it. The biggest hurdle for me has been attracting talent.”

Other sessions at the Summit focused on the technology, business operations, leadership, management, culture and people transforming the legal industry, such as Blockchain, legal data analytics and creating an “agile” culture.

“There is no ‘the’ blockchain,” said former Baker McKenzie lawyer and co-founder of Consulere.io, Bonnie Yiu. “Blockchains are digital ledgers which record transactions between two parties, driven by P2P technology, so there is no need for a third party. Data is secure, encrypted and pushed onto the chain." 

“There are various types of blockchain – depending on the use case, you can arrive at a very different solution,” said Bonnie.

Hannah Glass, a solicitor at King & Wood Mallesons, observed that the recently launched Australian National Blockchain could serve as a central platform for the provision of services built on this blockchain.

“Our role as lawyers isn’t to be dazzled by the technology,” said Hannah. “Our role is to push back and see how it fits into the legal framework.”

Much has been made of the promise of “agile” work processes, a way of working which has its origins in tech teams.

“There is a difference between a flexible workplace and an agile workplace,” said Alison Laird, Head of Innovation and Project Delivery Asia Pacific at Pinsent Masons and Chair of CLI’s recently launched Chief Innovation Officers Forum. “Flexible workplaces focus on the individual; agile applies to the whole organisation. It’s much more about empowering the workforce to see work as an activity, not a place.”

Tim Frost, Partner at PWC, encouraged organisations to test how agile leadership and management works in practice.

“Testing is a key feature of agile work environments. Develop a prototype, refine it, improve it. Make it a democratic process, so everyone involved has an opportunity to participate. Don’t just stick to your initial plan. Expand and rebuild it.”

Tim suggested that the nature of PWC as a professional services firm allows for a more holistic approach to solving a client’s problem.

“We can solve an entire problem rather than just give a legal solution, because we bring a lot more disciplines to a case.”

More and more, the role of law firms will change, said Allison.

“Law firms are being less seen as a law firm, and more about the delivery of legal services working as part of the delivery chain of a business. For lawyers, there isn’t going to be less law to do. There is going to be different law – a different way to practise law which is multi-disciplinary and collaborative.”

The Summit closed on an optimistic note.

“What’s the risk of not using technology?” asked CLI Advisory Board member Suzie Thoraval. “If we don’t embrace technology, it will leave us behind. There is no situation where there’s zero risk.”

“Technology is a human activity,” said Belinda Dunstan, an Associate Lecturer from UNSW. “It doesn’t exist without our needs and desires, and without us building it and implementing it. Technology isn’t invading from outer space and taking our jobs. It is a human activity. Robots are taking the parts of jobs robots are good at doing, allowing humans to do the most human, intuitive, creative and empathetic parts of the job.”