Hack the Past : How the Legal Profession knew nothing about Technology

By | February 11, 2018

Don't let millennials think that lawyers are still using quill pens

Don’t let millennials think that lawyers are still using quill pens

Yesterday I came across the #UMLR2018 hashtag on Twitter and started following what had the promise of being an interesting conference from the Miami School of Law: ‘Hack to the Future: How Technology is Disrupting the Legal Profession‘.

However, hot on the heals of my thoughts on ‘Legal Conferences and Artificial Intelligence‘ this conference appeared to be no different.

There was a good splash of futuristic frightening that at the moment for most practising solicitors is simply science fiction and nothing at all to be concerned about, e.g.:-

I would take the Albert Einstein approach and not clutter my brain with something I can look up elsewhere. He, when asked his phone number, looked it up in a telephone directory.

What alarmed me most was the hatchet job that appeared to be aimed at my generation (Generation X) and the one that went before me (Baby Boomers) as luddites in legal technology use awaiting saviour by the current generation (Millennials).

I have not deep dived into the hashtag and, of course, can only comment on the tweets I have seen (there may have been contradictory and better content at the conference not revealed in tweets). Here are a couple of tweets from #UMLR2018 and replies from me:-

You would think legal technology had just been created and was only now about to disrupt legal services and needs millennials (who, of course, understand it in a way my generation never will!) to implement it. What nonsense. Technology is an evolving thing. Technology for lawyers is part of that evolution.

I had my own personal computers as a schoolboy in the early 1980s: A Dragon computer followed by a BBC Micro. I taught myself a bit of basic coding at the time.

The first law office I worked in during university holidays in the mid 1980s had no computers but electronic typewriters (with a limited memory) and a Telex machine. Carbon paper was used to produce your file copy letters/documents.

When I started my legal traineeship in the early 1990s computers were in use, at the law firm who trained me, for Client Record Management (CRM), document production and cash room accounting functions. I introduced e-mail to that firm and ensured they registered their domain name.

In 1999 I formed my own law firm, Inksters. At day one I purchased a sophisticated practice management system (more advanced than the one the firm I left had). It set me in good stead to build and grow Inksters. That system had statistics, data analysis and data visualisation. None of those things are new.

That system has evolved and improved over the years. We moved it completely into the cloud in 2011.

Over the years at Inksters we have been early adopters in the introduction and utilisation of other technology, like being the first law firm in Scotland to:-

  • facilitate Online payment for legal accounts.
  • Tweet.
  • with a dedicated YouTube Channel.
  • pin at Pinterest.
  • utilise a web based digital dictation system.
  • introduce the property information to mobile phones by text service: Keytxt/Intelligent Property to both Glasgow and Shetland.

We continue in that vain and have a number of new technology initiatives (none requiring AI) to be implemented in 2018.

The early adoption of technology by solicitors in general can be seen through the history of the Society for Computers and Law. Their website reveals:-

Overview

The Society was established in 1973 to promote the use and understanding of information technology (IT) in the context of the law. For the first twenty years of its existence it focused more on the technical aspects of IT in use to support legal practices. Since then its focus has shifted more to the practice of IT law as a specialist subject as this has evolved to encompass new issues like the world wide web and digital media.

Origins

In 1970 the Law Society of England and Wales set up a committee to look at the possible uses of computers in a solicitor’s office.  The focus of those deliberations were on time-recording and on accounting systems only but there were many groups of people who were already pointing the way to a wider range of possibilities

In Scotland Colin Campbell, who was then a member of the Law Faculty in Edinburgh, organised a conference which led to the formation of the Scottish Legal Computer Law Trust and the publication of a report by Colin Campbell, Bill Aitken and Richard Morgan entitled Computers for Lawyers.

Meanwhile in England, starting, as long ago as 1967, Professor Bryan Niblett had aroused the interest of Norman Nunn-Price in computing. Norman had been working on shock waves and plasma physics at Harwell and Culham, and it was at Harwell that the two pioneers developed the Status project for the retrieval by computer of legal data relating to atomic energy.

In New York a legal information system was made available in the early 1960s by a firm called Law Research Services Inc. but the enterprise floundered in a welter of litigation. It was not until later in that decade that the Ohio Bar Association decided to sponsor a new full-text retrieval system which eventually developed into the Lexis system.

Whilst undoubtedly it is the case that on the whole lawyers adoption of technology is slow it has happened and is still happening at different paces depending upon the law firm in question. Indeed I have argued that BigLaw is often behind SmallLaw or NewLaw on the Legal IT curve.

But let’s not mislead the lawyers of tomorrow (the millennials) into thinking they are the saviours of the legal profession and that they alone will bring a new wave of legal technology with them that will disrupt legal services. That disruption has clearly been in progress the whole of my lifetime if not before and will continue as technologies evolve and are implemented by law firms. That is how it has been and will be. The pace may appear to be picking up a bit but I am not even sure if that is really the case. This is something that perhaps more likely arises, perception wise, from the current hype surrounding AI, blockchain and chatbots.

As Sara Kubik astutely pointed out:-

Also the fact is that as new lawyers entering a law firm they will be there to be trained in law. Surely they have entered the profession to be lawyers not data analysts.

Okay Richard Susskind foresaw (in ‘Tomorrow’s Lawyers‘) a future where there will be new jobs for lawyers. I created one such job at Inksters when we employed a Legal Process Engineer.

But these are specific roles that take you away from practising law and into new and different territories. The question is do you want one of those new roles or a traditional role as a lawyer which is likely to be backed up by technology you can utilise and exploit? If the latter you will be trained in the use of the technology in question. You don’t need to know how to create or build it.

Also we learn at conferences that millennials are unlikely to stay in one job for more than two years, are likely to change career direction and do not want leadership roles. I know these are generalisations, and the topic warrants a blog post in its own right, but if there is any truth in these statements are millennials really going to take the mantle in legal technology advancement within law firms?

Again what is required is a dose of reality and a bit less hype. Millennials, of course, have a part to play in the evolution of legal technology advancement but they are not the ‘gods’ of it.

Let’s not forget the past and where we have been and what we have achieved to date. Teach our law students that and be positive about their role in an ever evolving world of legal technology.

Reactions on Social Media

There have been reactions to this post on Twitter and LinkedIn. To keep these together with the post itself I have copied the tweets and comments here:-

And on LinkedIn:-

Michael Burne: I’m a big fan of actual intelligence Brian Inkster and it sounds like you might be too. Tech changes how we work – ref Wang to Word but there’ll always be an important place for humans enabled to do more and better by tech!

Rob Brown: As Bill Gates prophesied, Michael Burne, the geeks will take over the world!

Michael Burne: Rob Brown that’s Mr Gates building self-fulfilling prophesies. If I prophesy that the lawyers will take over might that happen? I’m hoping the humans will stay in control rather than machines and hopefully both lawyers and geeks will remain a sub-set of human!

Brian Inkster: I am Michael Burne and agree that lawyers and tech need to work together and not one try to outdo the other like: http://thetimeblawg.com/2017/10/31/casecrunch-v-lawyers-not-deep-blue-v-kasparov/

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David Gilroy: Great post Brian Inkster.

Rob Brown:  was going to forward this to you David Gilroy, as this is precisely the kind of thing you talk about. But you’re on it already.

Brian Inkster: David Gilroy doesn’t miss a trick Rob Brown!

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Rob Brown: While technology is a game changer, Brian, there HOPEFULLY will always be a demand for a ‘people skill set’ to win work, build relationships and handle complex cases.

Brian Inkster: Indeed Rob Brown. What Richard Susskind refers to in Tomorrow’s Lawyers as the expert trusted advisers. “These are intelligent, creative, innovative lawyers who can fashion and articulate new solutions and strategies for clients who have complex or high-value legal challenges (the expert element). These are also lawyers who can communicate their guidance not just with integrity and in a confidential manner but in a highly tailored, customized and personalized way (the trusted component).”

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Victoria Moffatt: Great post Brian – having been to a fair few similar-sounding conferences in the past (we met in IRL at one actually!) I have to agree that the hype doesn’t usually match the reality of life in practice.

Brian Inkster: Thanks Victoria Moffatt. I remember the one we met at. I also remember at that one a delegate (not you or me) falling asleep during the keynote by a legal futurist. I am starting to feel sleepy at such conferences when the same hype gets re-pedalled. Indeed I am becoming more selective about such conferences based on speakers and content advertised. Hope to meet up with you again at a good one sometime in the future.

Victoria Moffat: Brian Inkster I can’t believe I missed that! Maybe the room was too hot ;0) I think Shireen Smith was thinking of organising a tweetup for the ‘old guard’ – hope so. If not, do you ever come over to Manchester?

Brian Inkster: Were you sleeping too then Victoria Moffatt 😉 A tweetup for the ‘old guard’ would be good. Happy to help Shireen Smith with that if later in the year! Not often in Manchester but will let you know if I find myself there.

Shireen Smith: Really great points you’re making in this post by the way Brian

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Pritesh Kabawala BSc (Hons) DipFA®: Brian Inkster good post!

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Yvonne Nath: Yes, we need to stay positive amidst all of the anxiety-producing hype, and it is so important to respect and remember the past when looking to the future. Many lessons learned that we should not simply dismiss.

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Jonathan Maskew: Great reading, thx for sharing

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Alex G Smith: Couldn’t agree more with this. The lack of “history” in our industry is shocking and will cost us up to half a decade as wheels are reinvented that could have been instantly answered by asking someone who has already designed or created solutions in a different phase/cycle of technological development. We need to better join the dots and not listen to experts who seem to start from a doomsday scenario or generalisation. Can we please skip the half decade of wheel reinvention – I’m getting old and there’s some really great things to do and society issues to fix with digital law.

Tim Lennon: I’m always fascinated how, in history, we find a simplification of something that happened, and stick with it as if people before us were idiots: it took them an absolutely age to legislate for the Plimsoll Line, yet now it’s pretty much an international given. Yet supporters spent an unholy amount of time trying to get it set up.

When we go back and look at all these things we take for granted, we recognise that there really is never, at the time, genuine black and white everywhere – as you and the article observe, the more we realise that, the more we accept that the big bang of whatever the new tech is does not fix the problem by itself …

Stuart Clout: Amen Alex G Smith. And may I also suggest to look for and ask people who used to be lawyers and now sit at the front edge of tech development. They have a very unique and pretty handy perspective. Firms working with tech outfits who identify issues, solve them, move onto the next one (repeat) is how real, practical progress is made.

Alex G Smith: I look for good legal tech companies that want to have an open and user centric approach to understanding the needs of lawyers and the user journeys of those lawyers. The tech companies don’t need to be stacked with ex-lawyers just be curious, listening and methodical to the needs of their end users and be prepared to invest in this and not “hard sell” of the wonders of “AI” or whatever open source/off the shelf tech they are leveraging.  Anyone building a product on continuous and incremental insight will do well … the bar is very low in this area.


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