The Need for Lawyers
As the legal profession undergoes massive change, there are a variety of questions faced by legal educators. Many of these are explored in Lindgren et al (eds), The Future of Australian Legal Education: A Collection (Thomson Reuters 2018), which collates papers from a conference held in August 2017.
My own contribution, “The Need for Lawyers”, responds to arguments, such as those made in Susskind and Susskind, The Future of The Professions (OUP 2015), that we will not need as many lawyers in the future due largely to the impact of new technologies. It counters the predictive claim with a normative one, namely that the future needs lawyers, particularly in light of the move towards automation. However, in order to operate in an increasingly automated future, these lawyers will need different skills and literacies that go beyond a purely legal education. In particular, lawyers will need to understand enough about techniques of automation to be able to effectively work alongside them, deploy them to meet a client’s needs, and challenge them where appropriate, as well as design governance frameworks for automated systems and even design or co-design the systems themselves.
It follows the rule of three, considering first why legal knowledge, skills and values remain important, second how the changing profession affects the kinds of lawyers that will be required, and third how legal education needs to change to ensure that all students acquire essential skills and have access to desirable ones.
Legal knowledge and skills will continue to be important, and may even become more important, in the move towards automation. But, increasingly, these will need to be combined with technical literacy. Challenging automated government decisions requires an understanding of the logic on which decisions were made and the statutory context in which decisions ought to be made. Automation can assist legal processes, ensuring greater efficiency and consistency, but not if the tools are used inappropriate, as I argue is the case for risk assessment tools in the context of sentencing. Smart contracts will only be effective if the legal terms combine with encoded terms to align with a client’s intentions. In all of these cases, legal skills combine with technical literacy, both to advise clients and also to ensure effective and appropriate functioning of the legal system.
Of course, new technologies will reduce the number of lawyers needed to perform tasks that can now be automated. It will also raise new questions for appropriately skilled lawyers to resolve. Lawyers with technical skills will be able to integrate textual and automated components of smart contracts. They will be able to design expert systems that answer straightforward questions, while feeding more complex questions efficiently into a firm’s intake systems. However, the bottom line is that firms’ willingness to subsidise the education of junior lawyers (while feeding them simple tasks like discovery and due diligence) will likely be reduced. The burden will increasingly be on legal educators to fill the growing gap.
This all raises challenges for legal education. We need to rethink how mandatory requirements are formulated – the current preferencing of knowledge requirements (as in the Priestley 11) should be reconsidered. The future will be less about what people know and more about how they can navigate systems to find solutions for clients. We also need to think about what opportunities students should have, beyond any mandatory minimum. Elective courses that expose students to legal issues around technology or that teach them how to automate legal reasoning (for example, by building an expert system) should be offered. Finally, we need to encourage students to consider studying a technical degree (such as computer science or data science) alongside their law degree. Given the current job market, it is odd that 200 students were admitted into Commerce/Law in 2017 but only two into Computer Science/Law.
We need lawyers who understand legal doctrine and rule of law values as well as the technologies that are increasingly used to automate decision-making. Legal education can no longer focus primarily on the content of law while ignoring the context in which it is increasingly applied.
Lyria Bennett Moses, The University of New South Wales, Faculty of Law