Embracing the tech revolution

André Dao

“The future of legal service,” writes law and technology expert Richard Susskind in Tomorrow's Lawyers, “will be neither Grisham nor Rumpole. Instead, it will be a world of virtual courts, Internet-based global legal businesses, online document production, commoditized service, legal process outsourcing, and web-based simulated practice. Legal markets will be liberalized, with new jobs, and new employers, for lawyers.”

More often than not, however, the law is represented as synonymous with tradition and age-old convention rather than innovation and change. This may help explain why media reports on technology and law are so often grim, predicting that thousands of legal jobs will soon be automated out of existence.

Yet such doom and gloom ignores the opportunities that technology offers for legal practitioners. The brave new world of legal “smart apps” and “expert systems” not only offers employment opportunities for a new breed of lawyer but also has the potential to make legal services more affordable and consumer-friendly for the general public.

Recent graduate Rachel Varghese (JD 2015) has first-hand experience of incorporating tech into law to improve access to justice. In her final semester she enrolled in the MLS subject Law Apps, taught by Gary Cazalet. In the subject, students design, build and release a legal expert system (law app) that can provide information to non-lawyers.

Varghese and a team of fellow students – Adam May, Lauren Harston, Kahsern Lim and Hugh French – worked with Justice Connect’s Not-for-profit Law, a specialist legal service for Australian community organisations, to create an app that would assist people starting their own not-for-profit organisations. The result was “Getting Started”, the first national legal web app providing automated legal help to not-for-profits, charities and community groups, which launched in June this year. The app allows users to fill out a quick online form that generates custom legal advice relevant to their specific not-for-profit group.

Justice Connect’s lawyers help people where they can,” Varghese says, “but they can’t help everyone, so having that app on their website allows people to self-serve to a limited degree.

Technology doesn’t just save time. Max Paterson (BA, LLB, 2011), co-founder of new automated family law service Settify, says “the adversarial process itself breeds acrimony, and technology can allow us to design a way to avoid or minimise that.” As an automated system, Settify allows clients to make the bulk of progress on a separation themselves. Only then does a lawyer check the details before consent orders are signed.

But it’s not just about being cheaper than traditional lawyers. “We aim to outperform traditional practice in every way that matters to clients,” Paterson says. One example is where amicable couples want to see the same lawyer, but can’t due to conflicts of interest. Settify can assist both parties because an information barrier (a “Chinese wall”) is built into the code.

To keep pace with this technological change, MLS is building on its existing offerings, including Law Apps and Cyber Law, to offer more subjects in the technology space. Associate Professor Jeannie Paterson says MLS is undergoing a review of its JD curriculum to provide more opportunities for law students to engage with new technologies that will shape legal practice in the future.

“New technologies do not necessarily require new law,” Associate Professor Paterson says. “Rather, they require lawyers to engage with these technologies to understand the legal issues raised and to think about how existing legal regimes can apply to these legal issues and where there are gaps for which new law and regulatory strategies need to be developed. And of course they require agile, exible lawyers who can think creatively across disciplines.”

Beyond the classroom, initiatives like MLS’ Corporate Law Hackathon also provide opportunities to combine legal skills with tech know-how. Jason Bosland, senior lecturer at MLS and the event’s co-convenor, says the Hackathon, which was held for the first time over a weekend in early August, is a forum for “students with a range of skills to collaborate in small groups to develop tech-based solutions to legal-related problems.” Critically, students collaborate not only with each other, but with lawyers from King & Wood Mallesons.

According to Bosland, the aim of the Hackathon is for “students to have exposure to a cross-disciplinary, collaborative environment and to recognise that the best solutions to problems are often achieved when you are able to work effectively with people from different backgrounds and with different perspectives.”

This is becoming increasingly important in law,” Bosland says, “due to the digital disruption being felt across the legal services sector.

In a changing world, confidence is key. For Associate Professor Paterson, this is the point of extracurricular initiatives like the Corporate Law Hackathon. They give students “the confidence to engage with these technologies in whatever career they choose to pursue.”

Those lawyers still nervous about making their first foray into digital law should be encouraged by the fact that a low-base knowledge of technology is no barrier to participation. Varghese certainly didn’t see herself as tech-savvy before she enrolled in Law Apps.

“Not even a little bit,” she says.

Despite this, Varghese was surprised to learn she enjoyed working on the “Getting Started” app. Better yet, she developed digital skills that have been transferable to her new role as a graduate lawyer at Hive Legal.

“I was given the opportunity to design an intranet page for the energy team,” she says. “That was a lot of fun.”

Watch a video about the Corporate Law Hackathon.

Banner image: 2016 Corporate Law Hackathon

Credit: King & Wood Mallesons

This article originally appeared in MLS News, Issue 16, October 2016.