Andrew Scott, Outreach and Research Officer in the Law Society of Scotland CPD & Training team, explains the value of interdisciplinary knowledge for legal professionals.
Quite rightly, the legal profession has always focused a great deal of effort towards keeping up with developments in the law. That will continue to be important, but, with the profession on the brink of considerable change, it may no longer be enough.
New entrants to the legal market, changes in the manner in which clients buy legal services, innovations in big data and artificial intelligence and the dangers posed by hacking and ransomware attacks pose new opportunities and challenges, requiring us to branch out and expand our knowledge in order to maximise our chances of thriving in this new environment.
There’s a story of a team of engineers working on a costly project to develop a sensor that could detect the presence of a miniscule quantity of a particular chemical underwater. After months of struggling, they were accosted by a marine biologist with a sack of shellfish. Throwing the sack on the table, the biologist explained to the bewildered engineers that these shellfish would change colour in response to that particular chemical – and for a fraction of the cost of developing a new sensor.
While we might not be seeing extensive cooperation between marine biologists and lawyers any time soon, this story underlines the value of interdisciplinary knowledge. Had these engineers known a little bit more about marine biology, they could have saved hundreds of thousands of pounds and months of effort.
In a similar vein, increased knowledge of the following disciplines could greatly improve the quality and efficiency of the services delivered by the legal profession:
There was a time when lawyers could sit in their office and say, “in my experience…”. Nowadays, the response to that is likely to be a sceptical “show me the data”.
One of the most crucial aspects of a lawyer’s job is the ability to understand and interpret information, and the increasing tendency of understanding the world through quantitative data can present additional challenges: lawyers generally learn and understand law through individual events and case-by-case analysis and few of us have been trained to manage large amounts of information. Nevertheless, statistics are pervasive in law: expert witnesses provide statistical evidence in cases ranging from criminal law to family law; statistics can be used to calculate damages and statistics can be used in asset valuation.
However, statistics can just as easily be skewed or misinterpreted – making it essential for lawyers to understand what they’re working with. Lawyers who work with statistics but are unfamiliar with concepts such as central tendency, sampling and multivariate analysis might want to consider enrolling on a stats course.
Or, more specifically: microeconomics.
Microeconomics is the study of the decision-making of individuals and firms as they compete for scarce resources: why they make these decisions and what the outcomes are likely to be.
Concepts such as game theory (you might have heard of the prisoner’s dilemma) can help predict the actions and reactions of the parties in a case and offer an analytical structure for managing the challenges raised by incomplete information. Decision analysis, an MBA stalwart, offers a way of understanding probability and risk aversion in a way that can, among other things, enable lawyers to efficiently make decisions concerning litigation strategies and settlement offers.
In addition, microeconomics has much to tell us about how economics can be used to shape law and society, enabling us to understand how rules of negligence and strict liability incentivise us to reduce risk. There is also value in studying the newer field of behavioural economics, which outlines how our decisions are based on imperfect, biased and accurate calculations and allow us to consider how the law might be used to mitigate this.
If you are a family lawyer negotiating divorce settlements or child custody, you ought to be able to understand the precise financial situations of the parties. If you’re working on a tax case, it is important to be able to interpret statements of the present and future incomes in order to build a full understanding of the tax implications. If you represent a charity, a business or a government agency, your work could be aided and contextualised through an understanding of their financial reports.
In short, lawyers who advise and represent clients in conducting their affairs must understand their financial circumstances. This can be aided through an understanding of accounting standards such as double-entry booking, balance sheets and statements of cash flows.
Lawyers are often expected to provide advice in business transactions, asset divisions and numerous other matters where an awareness of valuation, risk and return, diversification and the time value of money can be greatly beneficial.
There are numerous areas, namely contractual negotiations and litigation settlements, where an understanding of finance will enable legal professionals to represent their clients more effectively – and increasing numbers of legal buyers in the finance sector are expecting their legal advisers to have a firm knowledge of financial concepts.
Whether it’s coding for lawyers or cloud computing, technology stands to fundamentally change the legal profession.
While fears of the robot lawyer takeover are somewhat overstated, artificial intelligence offers great potential in automating repetitive and time-consuming work. In addition to this, developments in court technology and legal chatbots could fundamentally reshape legal technology and blockchain technologies could alter the nature of contracts and transactions in ways that are yet to be fully explored.
However, the future isn’t entirely rosy: cybersecurity poses urgent risks to the confidential data held by law firms and we need to equip ourselves to deal with this. Just about the only thing that’s certain about legaltech is that nothing is certain – though keeping up to date with developments will surely reap dividends.
Want to learn more?
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