How much law do lawyers really need?

Pat Chapman-Pincher posted this on

Recently I spoke to a large group of General Counsel about the future of work and the impact of technology. My own view is that they are an influential group of people, but often under-rated. So I was keen to get their views on what our future workplaces would look like – and what would the job of General Counsel look like in 20 years?!

My first question to them was: “What qualifications will you need to be a General Counsel in 20 years’ time?”

Their responses all centred around legal qualifications. My view, which made everyone sit up, was that in 20 years’ time you will need commercial judgment, great team skills and empathy – but almost certainly not much knowledge of the law itself. Why? Because technology is changing the way we work and the skills – and qualifications – that we will need.

Where can technology help a General Counsel?
Law is one of those areas that lends itself to what I call Intelligent Automation. Law is legislation, codes, precedent. When you ask a lawyer for an opinion, they give their opinion based on thorough research on existing legal documentation.

This research can be reduced to a set of rules and computers are very good at doing research and following rules. They are much better at it than humans because they don’t get tired or distracted and they are very objective. So most of what we would see today as the work of legal administrators and junior lawyers can be done in the future by intelligent machines.

This may sound futuristic but it isn’t. In 2012, US courts endorsed predictive coding technology to reduce the number of documents that humans needed to review in legislation. Timothy Harkness and Dana Post of the law firm Freshfields have written an excellent blog on this – and agree about the impact of technology on legal jobs, “lawyers who don’t adapt to e-discovery technology may find their jobs in peril” and “the legal profession is about to experience the same sort of change that revolutionized the automobile industry in the 20th century”.

The Judge Peck in his ruling said “statistics clearly show that computerized searches are at least as accurate, if not more so, than manual review” and added that the technique of keyword searching is often “over-inclusive” and “not very effective” and in many cases, “the way lawyers choose keywords is the equivalent to a child’s game of ‘Go Fish’”.

Over time this will have a major effect on the time needed to review documents.

If you are a General Counsel now you should be looking at what is available in computer-supported analysis and drafting. If it is currently too expensive and maybe not flexible enough for your company, then talk to experts and find out when it will be. Technology improves and costs drop very fast.

How do you get the real benefit?
Once you have the technology you need to adapt your organization around it. That takes time the real benefits of the Industrial Revolution only came about when instead of shoe-horning the new technology into the old processes, the smart manufacturers realized that they needed to change the process.

When electric motors were introduced, they were initially put into the same place in the factory as their water-driven predecessors. Only when people realized this was not very efficient and changed the process did they reap the real benefits.

General Counsel need to start thinking how processes and staffing will change and ask themselves questions. How should new technologies be used to be really efficient? Will you need all the people you currently have? How many people will you need in a legal team?

My own view is that in ten years’ time your ‘team’ will be a smart computer and an empathetic presenter of facts – ie the General Counsel. And that raises more questions – if you still need a senior person to present the facts but don’t have junior people watching and learning along the way, then how will you develop those senior skills?

Where will you still need humans?
Why did I say you need an empathetic presenter of facts?

Where you need humans is when you take the output from the research and have to make assessments of how other humans will react to it. What will the jury think, how will the judge assess the evidence? What elements of your carefully constructed set of facts do you want to stress?

Critical assessment of facts will be one skill that will matter but more important will be empathy and powers of persuasion.

You will still need humans to judge other humans, at least until the day that someone decides that algorithms would do a better job. That day is probably some time away but lawyers would do well to think how they can work with machines rather than assume that they will never take their jobs. I gave some of my own thoughts in this blog about the future for professional services.

What do you think a General Counsel’s team will look like in 20 years? Which skills will be the most important and how will those skills be built and from which areas? Will they still need to be lawyers?!

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