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Susskind: “Trainees will learn like astronauts – with virtual reality”

Susskind: So much of learning in law is based fundamentally on the apprenticeship model

Trainee lawyers in future may do their legal training by using immersive virtual reality software simulating the practice environment, much like astronauts being made ready for space, Professor Richard Susskind has predicted.

He also commented on a massive expansion in the number of legal tech start-ups, all hoping  to disrupt the market.

He pointed to the rapid pace of change, including that just five years ago there were only a couple of hundred start-ups focusing on the industry and now there were 3,000 to 4,000, “each trying to do to a corner of law what Amazon did to bookselling”.

Speaking on a Brick Court Chambers webinar on the future of justice, as part of its centenary celebrations, the leading futurist expounded his theories of digital courts, ‘asynchronous hearings’ – which take place outside of a courtroom – and access to justice via a hugely advanced non-human artificial intelligence.

He anticipated a mixture of human and digital justice, possibly facilitated by hitherto unknown innovations, would take place in the future. But “for many, many years yet”, dealing with legal clients would be a human task, as would “strategy and tactics”.

Taking questions from several legal luminaries, including justice minister and barrister Alex Chalk MP, Professor Susskind disagreed over whether in general litigants were content with online justice, as opposed to that took place in person in a courtroom.

Mr Chalk observed that some litigants – such as those in cases involving child custody or divorce – might feel “short-changed” if the matter was not dealt with in the “solemnity” of a court.

While agreeing court user satisfaction should be measured empirically, Professor Susskind predicted that future generations would be more interested in speed and convenience of justice than its location.

This would be especially true, for example, of small businesses seeking to recover debts.

On the training of lawyers, Professor Susskind said he worried that they were being trained as “20th-century lawyers rather than 21st-century lawyers”.

He continued: “So much of learning in law is [based] fundamentally on the apprenticeship model… [where] you just sit in a room with a person and absorb a lot.

“We will have to do much more [than just offer Zoom lectures in future]… Astronauts, when they are just about to make the first actual flight… don’t look around the cabin and say ‘[this is the] first time I’ve seen one of these’ – of course they don’t.

“They have for years been sitting in simulators… What we will need to do is build simulated practice environments – virtual reality. In future legal education actually through VR will be able to give a far wider set of these apprenticeship experiences.”

“What we’re doing today is the worst it’s ever going to be. [In future] it will be three-dimensional, holographic, the sound coming from everywhere.”

Asked how the human reassurance role currently carried out by lawyers with clients facing difficult situations might be handled, he predicted that when people went to see a lawyer in future, they would first be seen by an empathetic person who was not necessarily legally qualified.

He drew a comparison with medicine, when a practitioner nurse might see patients first, while the diagnostics were done by computerised system.

Meanwhile, “lots of stuff” could be done differently, such as project management, document analysis, legal research and prediction. “In some tasks human beings are better, in others we will be competing [with computers].”