• Stuart Hargreaves

Implications of 'machine lawyering' for legal education

In 2013, Carl Frey & Michael Osborne estimated that automation threatened the existence of nearly one in two jobs in the United States. Though lawyering was listed as one of the least likely to be eliminated thanks to advances in robotics and artificial intelligence, that does not mean the profession will be unscathed. Already, algorithms and apps are beginning to eat into work previously done not just by paralegals, but by junior lawyers as well as legal start-ups deploy new tools that can assist in the discovery process, determine the appropriate calculation of child support, or instantly review commercial loan agreements.

Lawyers – especially in the ‘biglaw’ world – would traditionally cut their teeth doing the dull work of document review and due diligence. But now, computers make the process much faster, reducing the number of lawyers needed and in some cases eliminating the need for them altogether. Industry wide, it is estimated that 2% of a lawyer’s workload is eliminated by new technology each year. Deloitte has estimated that in the UK alone, 114 000 legal jobs are likely to be eliminated in the next twenty years. Take JP Morgan’s COIN (Contract Intelligence) program that reviews the commercial loan agreements – it instantly replaced 360 000 hours of lawyer-time. In 2010, DLA Piper used a software tool developed by Clearwell to analyse over half a million documents in two days to identify those that were relevant. According to the New York Times, the software “uses language analysis and a visual way of representing general concepts found in documents to make it possible for a single lawyer to do work that might have once required hundreds.”

This has important implications not only for the future of the profession, but for the future of legal education too. Are law schools providing students with the skills they need to succeed in a rapidly changing workplace? The junior “machine lawyers” of tomorrow are as likely to be working alongside an algorithm in an office tower as they are to be advocating for a client in court. They are as likely to be asked by a senior partner to help them understand the code that underpins a ‘smart contract’ as they are to be asked to write a memo summarizing a line of jurisprudence. No wonder then that law students in the United States are increasingly encouraged to learn how to code and to take courses in statistics, and some law schools are developing entire courses with titles like “lawyering in the age of smart machines”.

Hong Kong is not immune to the changes that automation will bring (some might say wring), and the legal education sector must adapt if its graduates are to meet the needs of their 21st century clients. All putative barrister and solicitors in Hong Kong must complete the PCLL – a one year programme delivered by the law schools designed not to teach substantive law, but rather the skills need for competency as a professional. The time is ripe for the three law schools in the city, along with the PCEA, to give serious consideration to expanding the kinds of skills that are taught in the PCLL to include those relevant to future ‘machine lawyers’.

Stuart Hargreaves, Hong Kong

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