Top judge tells business lawyers: Get ready for the future

Vos: Common law will adapt

The Chancellor of the High Court has urged commercial lawyers to prepare for the disruptive impact of technology on the law, the legal system and legal profession before others “steal a march” on them.

Sir Geoffrey Vos said the profession needed “to turn its incredible intellectual fire-power towards the development of the English common law, so that it can effectively tackle the problems thrown up by the use of big data, cryptoassets, on-chain smart contracts, and artificial intelligence”.

Expressing confidence that the English common law could adapt to these challenges, he added: “My plea is that you do not leave it too late, because there are many other brilliant lawyers in other jurisdictions who are motivated to steal a march on their common law colleagues in the UK.”

Giving the Commercial Bar Association’s annual lecture this week, Sir Geoffrey warned commercial lawyers that it was too late to hope to retire before any of this became a reality.

“It is already reality,” he said.

Rather, he encouraged lawyers “to think imaginatively about the world in which the commercial legal services of the future will be required”.

This was likely to be a cyber-world “in which climate change and borderless technologies are each of great significance”.

He pointed to an inevitable increase in data-related litigation, and said there has already been more litigation about cryptoassets than most people imagined.

Sir Geoffrey revealed that the UK Jurisdiction Taskforce, which is part of the LawTech Delivery Panel, would next week publish a legal statement providing definitive guidance as to the status of cryptoassets and smart contracts under English law.

While human lawyers and judges would still be needed, lawyers had to embrace AI and show that it could be responsibly employed to save costs and increase outputs, so as to “retain the confidence of your clients”.

Sir Geoffrey acknowledged that some lawyers and judges have suggested that the use of AI in law firms and dispute resolution contexts could and should be stopped because of the ethical risks.

“They point to the undesirable consequences of analysing individual judges’ judgments and outcomes and of the use of predictive algorithms generally.

“I am sure they have a point. But I am equally sure that these programmes are already in use and that we will not, in general terms, be able to stop the use of AI in a litigation and arbitration context.”

Commercial dispute resolution also had to adapt to provide “a more streamlined service to the national and international business community of the mid-21st century”, he added.

“That will involve more ADR, more online dispute resolution, a bespoke dispute resolution mechanism for smart contracts, and reformed mainstream commercial dispute resolution making greater use of AI and internet technologies.”

He issued a plea “to do everything we can to maintain and enhance confidence in the ability of English law and the UK’s jurisdictions to provide an effective foundation for inevitable and ongoing technological progression – some might say that we ‘ain’t seen nothing yet’”.

Further, lawyers had to build bridges with the technological community: “There is a strong push amongst those responsible for driving technological change towards disintermediation and reducing the reliance of the international commercial community on the law.

“This push can be resisted, but only by the use of reason and by explaining the added value that the law and dispute resolution can provide to the objectives of the technological community.”

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