The rise of the multi-disciplinary lawyer: A challenge for legal education


Posted by Dr Catrina Denvir, director of the Legal Innovation Centre at the University of Ulster

Denvir: legal technology changes the way legal work is completed, digital data changes the nature of the work itself

The legal profession has been on the receiving end of much hype regarding the impact of technology. Recent commentators purport that the aspiring lawyer must be a triple threat, possessing knowledge of the law, coding expertise, and in-depth knowledge of legal technology.

Yet, focusing on legal technology risks overlooking the need for skills that transcend latest fads. Legal technology is a means by which to handle data: to organise it, record it, extract it, analyse it, predict from it and leverage it.

Quantitative and statistical literacy – the ability to understand, apply, visualise and infer from data – underpins technological literacy and yet receives very little attention from those who encourage innovation in the legal curriculum.

Whilst legal technology changes the way legal work is completed, digital data changes the nature of the work itself. In a world where there is an audit trail for almost everything we do and say, there is also far more data to audit.

In capitalising on this trend, data will enable law firms to expand beyond the traditional sphere of transactional/litigation work, moving into the territory of risk forecasting and mitigation, not just in relation to disputes, but also in relation to business processes and practices.

This will, and indeed already has, led to some firms adopting organisational mission statements more at home in a business consultancy than a traditional law firm.

The accumulation of data, particularly dark data also has the potential to shape the relationship between the client and a firm. We are likely to see law firms placing greater emphasis on tailoring their service offering by exploring the dark data they possess and the insights it provides to them about the relationships they have with clients.

The capacity to extract and analyse data is what will enable law firms to buck the trend of commodification; providing firms with an opportunity to carve out a boutique offering that elevates their services above the competition for low-cost transactional work.

These changes do not signal the end of lawyers. As it stands, changes to the qualifying route into legal practice planned by the Solicitors Regulation Authority, are, at least in England and Wales, likely to result in more lawyers, rather than fewer.

Further changes being considered will narrow the scope of reserved activities, necessitating that lawyers bring something more to the table than the legal authority to undertake certain tasks.

Lawyers will continue to provide an important service, operating hand in glove with technology, but emerging trends suggest that the service delivered will be less concerned with the doing of ‘law’ and more concerned with offering added value. This value can only be realised if the scope of legal services is reshaped.

Whilst technology can be used to preserve the life span of transactional work by keeping costs low and efficiency high, automation will invariably do away with much of the labour-intensive, high-volume work that has traditionally been a firm’s bread and butter. Firms that are looking to the future will focus on innovation broadly speaking and will seek to recruit those who bring more than just legal training to their role as lawyer.

These changes herald the birth of the multi-disciplinary lawyer – a lawyer who is not simply wedded to legal technology, but who possesses a wide range of skills that can contribute to the process of innovating law and keeping ahead of automation.

Yet the multi-disciplinary lawyer raises some challenges for legal educators who have traditionally been resistant to dilute the study of law. This resistance is evident not just within teaching, but also in the field of legal research, where inter-disciplinary or empirical (data driven) approaches to the law co-exist uneasily and unequally alongside those working within the traditional doctrinal or theoretical paradigm.

Many enter into law in avoidance of numerical skills rather than in pursuit of them and although the practice of law in large City firms values the numerate, the work of legal empiricists has largely been confined to the periphery, acquiring little if any permanent tenure in the academic or vocational legal curriculum.

The rise of digital data alongside the legal technology required to extract and interrogate this data, suggests that legal education needs to start recognising the importance and relevance of a whole new range of skills. Legal technologists may be shouting the loudest, but that should not be taken to mean that technological skills merit greater attention than other types of skills.

Lawyers do not need to know how to code any more than aspiring doctors need to know how to build lasers or fabricate surgical instruments. The intention should be to enable lawyers to be conversant with technology, not developers of it.

An understanding of the difference between symbolic and sub-symbolic (connectionist) artificial intelligence systems and how they ‘automate’ legal reasoning, argumentation and prediction is a useful starting point. Numeracy skills become even more important in light of the rise of neural networks.

As the practice of law expands beyond the provision of legal advice, the education of lawyers needs to move beyond knowledge of the law. Changes to the qualifying route for lawyers offer us an opportunity to reconsider what the academic and vocational elements of legal training should comprise.

This is not an opportunity that those involved in legal education can afford to waste. Whilst legal technology will necessarily play a role in the work of the modern lawyer (much like every profession), we must think more creatively, listen more careful and map the direction of the profession more closely, if we are going to adequately prepare lawyers for shape of the profession to come.




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