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Coding and decoding

21 April 2017 | tagged News release | Current issues

Rob Marrs

Rob Marrs, Head of Education at the Society, reflects on the complementary rather than interchangeable relationship between technology and ‘people’.

It seems a week cannot pass at present without an article about how robots are going to take our jobs away.

Let’s get serious here. Developments in technology over the past 40 years (e.g. computers replacing typewriters, automatic redlining software replacing hand redlining, emails replacing physical postage) reduced or eliminated some of the time-consuming aspects of the job. But they did not eliminate the job altogether. The chances are, no new technology will be able to do so any time soon.

Indeed, whilst there is a buzz in the legal sector around firms beginning to use artificial intelligence and machine learning it is unlikely that machines will ‘’replace’’ human workers in the near future. It is more likely that advances in robotics and algorithms will mean that machines will begin to perform an ever-increasing number of tasks and that this process may change the content and nature of some legal jobs but probably won’t see them entirely replaced. It is likely that such technology will complement existing roles or will allow people to focus on higher value work.

In the short-term, technology is likely to make the biggest impact in legal work that might reasonably be called ‘’predictable’’ (i.e. relating to the collation and processing of data). Work which is unpredictable is far less likely to be done by machines.

Those in the legal profession, and those hoping to join it, will have to learn how to use technology to help them when it comes to doing routine or predictable tasks and also consider how they can make themselves more effective when it comes to doing unpredictable tasks (i.e. using project management methodologies etc.). This isn’t – or at least shouldn’t be – scary. A solicitor who qualified in 1982 qualified into a world where online legal research was unknown Excel, PowerPoint and Word didn’t exist and the internet and email were over a decade away from becoming even close to mainstream. These have had to be adapted into practice. Solicitors have always adapted to change and always will. I’ve got every faith that the generation of digital natives who are qualifying now are well placed to master similar seismic changes over the coming decades.

And let’s face it: whilst some things in legal practice are predictable, many things are not: managing a team, a project or a matter; working with clients and understanding their needs and desires; deploying expertise built up over many years; reacting to financial or political events; and applying commercial awareness. All of these rely on working with people.

Therefore, if the next generation of solicitors is to excel they will need to have an understanding of technology but they will also need to develop the soft skills set that have always been at the heart of a solicitor’s business. We absolutely need more people across the profession with an awareness of technology and how it affects the profession. We’ll need some people who can code. We’ll need more people who can decode though. (As an aside we recently held our first ‘Intro to Coding’ session. The feedback was sensational. If you are interested, keep an eye on our events page).

The abilities to manage emotional or stressful events, to empathise, to listen actively, to understand what makes people tick or the cultural context of the decisions some people make – all of these are honed in practice. Tomorrow’s lawyers will need to understand the economic, social, commercial and psychological dimensions of a transaction or a case. None of this is easy or predictable.

The Society’s Technology Committee is aware of these issues and is monitoring developments and thinking in this area. The first step for the profession will be to identify the specific lawyering areas which can be replaced and those which cannot be replaced.

For example, it is no doubt possible that a computer programme could ‘write’ a will subject to specifications input by a client. But advising on the potential ramifications of certain provisions within the will? Or explaining why certain things need more thought? Or weighing the merits of certain courses of action and advising one way or another? Not yet.

This shouldn’t be rocket science. People are at the heart of a solicitor’s business. Solicitors are required to put the interests of their client ahead of their own interests. Solicitors provide advice dispassionately to people at crucial times in their lives. They help guide companies faced with opportunities or difficulties. Technology will help them do this but ultimately the need to decode is still fundamental. The Society’s translated motto, after all, is that nothing human is alien. Just so.

 

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