Alyson Shaw, trainee solicitor at Shepherd & Wedderburn, reflects on the impact of technology on the legal profession.
Technophobia: noun. mass noun. The fear, dislike, or avoidance of new technology. Common amongst solicitors.
Being a child in the 90s meant growing up alongside the Internet, e-mail, social media, mobile technology, the Cloud and the 3G Network. All extraordinary technological advances that have now become commonplace. Studying a law degree in 2012 meant free access to online libraries like Westlaw and LexisNexis, databases that were not available until the 1970s and are now utilised in universities all over the UK. Commencing a traineeship in 2017 meant exposure to video conferencing, eData rooms, speech recognition software and remote access systems, resources that were once alien and are now embedded in the business models of Scottish firms. Even now, technology is advancing at an exponential rate, with the likes of artificial intelligence, block-chain and ‘smart contracts’ looking to disrupt the ways in which we operate. But can we, as a profession, keep up?
The legal market is being pushed in a new direction, that much is clear. Knowledge of the ‘black letter law’ is now taken as a given, with clients focussing more heavily on the convenience, efficiency and quality of their legal services. The notion of the ‘traditional law firm’ is being challenged, with solicitors facing increasing pressures to develop, and invest in, advanced technologies in order to remain competitive.
Driving innovation is the Law Society of Scotland, who recently announced their ‘LawScotTech’ initiative in an effort to produce workable, IT-based solutions for the legal sector. Launched in October 2018, the programme aims to encourage collaboration between technology experts and solicitors, with a view to developing innovative concepts and delivering them to market in the form of a new product or service.
Already, AI-based software is being use to facilitate productivity and streamline processes within the profession, by completing repetitive, routine tasks such as document assembly, due diligence, legal research and time-recording with a speed and accuracy that humans cannot rival. Likewise, block-chain looks set to transform the role played by solicitors in commercial transactions, with ‘smart contracts’ eliminating the need for intermediaries in the negotiation, drafting and enforcement of legal agreements.
The suggestion that these innovations will displace our profession as a whole is, however, open to scrutiny. A computer cannot, after all, offer the experience, judgement and values that solicitors possess. Yes, aspects of our role will become obsolete, but that isn’t necessarily something we should resist. Technological innovation ought to be viewed not as a threat, but as something that will empower solicitors to maximise efficiency, improve security and increase the value placed on their advisory, client-facing services.
The salient point is that the digital age is here, whether we like it or not. Our choice is simple: keep up or be left behind.