Transforming the life of the future lawyer

What will the day-to-day working lives of junior lawyers be like when time-intensive, manual tasks are automated?

Solicitors are ranged in a line “with bills, cross-bills, answers, rejoinders, injunctions, affidavits, issues, references to masters, masters’ reports, mountains of costly nonsense, piled before them”. The legal process was a “megalosaurus” lumbering through foggy Holborn Hill for Dickens in Bleak House. Now, this time-devouring dinosaur might have met its match for both in-house and private practice lawyers in the shape of automation in the legal industry.

Robotic process automation (RPA) in legal sector work is challenging every lawyer to plan for an unknown future. And no one knows this more than the junior, trying to imagine what a role-model future lawyer might look like as a career unfolds for decades from law school to retirement.

“For young lawyers, this is absolutely a positive thing,” says Chrissie Wolfe, a solicitor at Irwin Mitchell and founder of Law and Broader, a YouTube resource for aspiring lawyers. “The millennial generation is both tech savvy and uninhibited by years of practice in the traditional environment. Technology is an enabler to help us do our jobs better, not do our jobs for us.”

There’s no doubt that the legal profession is on the move, beating Dickens’ megalosaurus into the dispersing fog. US law firms invested $1.5 billion in RPA in legal sector offices over the past 24 months, according to the Legal Tech Sector Landscape Report by Tracxn this year.

Most, if not all, standard and repetitive processes are likely to be grabbed by automation in the legal industry. The recent Law Society Capturing Technological Innovation in Legal Services report revealed that RPA in legal sector work can cut costs by between 20 and 40 per cent, as well as cut the risk of human error and improve compliance.

The role of a junior lawyer will be broader

Technology research and advisory company Gartner forecasts that around one third of all current jobs will be automated by 2025. It’s not surprising that many junior and experienced lawyers are worried about training and the role of the future lawyer. Will there, for example, be a shortage of tasks to help junior lawyers learn the basics?

“There won’t be fewer tasks, just different tasks,” says Ms Wolfe. “A traditional trainee task may have been manually reviewing seven lever arch files of documents to get up to speed with a case or prepare for disclosure. In the future, the role of a junior lawyer is likely to be much broader as gradually businesses are realising the importance of upskilling.”

Clifford Chance is an example of this trend. It has introduced Ignite, a tech training contract which encourages trainees to build their skillset and create tech-enabled business solutions, alongside developing their legal knowledge and experience.

There could even be more work, requiring more automation in the legal industry. Lawyers increasingly need to find, search and analyse multimedia data. This might range from standard text files and spreadsheets through to audio and visual records, including Skype, FaceTime and social media messages.

Complexity demands automation in the legal industry

In-house project management faces another layer of complexity in handling these multiple tasks, as lawyers must work closely with non-lawyers and across professional boundaries. This makes automation good news for Harry Borovick, a young lawyer and regulatory counsel for sports betting and technology company Kambi. “In-house project managers are now able to simplify organisation using specially designed tools to achieve co-ordination across businesses, including within the legal function,” he says.

Junior lawyers just need to stay on top of developments, according to Laura Uberoi, real estate finance solicitor at Macfarlanes. “It wasn’t that long ago we were hand-writing contracts and mailing all correspondence fresh from the typewriter. Changes brought about by technology teach junior lawyers how to be innovative.”

Ms Uberoi’s comments are echoed by Mark O’Conor, chair of the Society for Computers and Law and partner at DLA Piper UK, who looks to training and law school as crucial for embracing automation in the legal industry. “The traditional bookish methods at university and law school will need to be modified, to add skills such as data analysis, coding and design-thinking,” he says.

Leaving time for serious analysis, reflection and thinking

Anything that helps with due diligence and especially cybersecurity, such as blockchain technology, will be particularly important to watch. And then there’s the much-vaunted machine-learning, which helps legal research with algorithms detecting patterns in data to apply to new data to automate set tasks. Analysts predict machine-learning will soon become an essential requirement for legal work involving data preparation and analysis.

Access to justice could also be widened with the use of intelligent technologies to provide user-friendly question interfaces underpinned by expert knowledge and 24/7 chatbots. But will RPA in legal sector tasks simply accelerate legal work, so lawyers will be expected to do more and work even faster?

“Perhaps the opposite,” says Mr O’Conor. “With the drudge taken away through RPA in legal sector work, more time is left for serious analysis, reflection and thinking around problems to create the best solutions for clients.”

There’s also plenty the junior lawyer can be doing to prepare for automation in the legal industry, according to Oliver Haddock, a solicitor at RadcliffesLeBrasseur and vice-chair of the London Young Lawyers Group (LYLG). “Attending events is hugely valuable not only for the content, but the opportunity to build on networking skills,” he says. “The LYLG runs events, as do Legal Geek and Legal Cheek. Junior lawyers and law students are using social media to consolidate and share their learning.”

Peter Wright, managing director of Digital Law, says junior lawyers might want to engage in competitions like legal hackathons, where law firms and universities spend 24 hours coming up with innovative solutions to problems in delivering legal services, demonstrating an ability to engage in more innovative thinking. “Technology will create new roles in firms, some of which we cannot envisage right now,” he adds.

A robot is replacing Dickens’ megalosaurus and the Bleak House fog could finally be clearing for the future lawyer. The legal profession just needs to stay friendly with RPA in legal sector practice management and remember what Ms Uberoi says: “Technology has made it even cooler to be a lawyer.”