The outcomes of legal cases have the capacity to shape our world.
Social-media giant Facebook continues to come under fire for the misuse of data in political campaigning, most recently lodging an appeal against the £500,000 ($898,506) fine issued against it by the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office over the Cambridge Analytica scandal. On the same continent, Italian antitrust officials recently charged Apple and Samsung over updates allegedly causing ‘malfunctions’ in old phones, pushing customers to buy newer models.
And back home in Australia, a long-running legal battle over the ownership of Domino’s GPS driver tracker system for pizza deliveries ended in a settlement.
Can you imagine a world where we conclude these major legal disputes with zero bias, 100% accuracy and impossible speed? A world where the data and judgement lay in the hands of advanced self-learning technology, with no room for human error, lost documents or copious hours of research?
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That picture is an exciting, terrifying and challenging one. But, is it realistic, and if so, when? And what does it mean for the legal industry in Australia? Or for everybody else who operates on the edge of the legal industry or use it only occasionally?
Following in fintech’s footsteps — here comes Australian legaltech
This new world order is emerging rapidly, and Australia is at the forefront of this change. In the past two years, we have seen a global explosion in legal technology startups. While Australia is small, it is a relatively sophisticated market and has lost no time in playing an important role in this trend. Industry commentator, Eric Chin, tracks 93 legal technology firms in Australia alone.
I had the pleasure of working closely with the legaltech community last year to help build the Australian Legal Technology Association. Its mission is to aid the growth of this eco-system, educate the market on building and adopting new technologies and raise the profile of the growing Australian legal technology industry on the global stage.
Existing, commercialised, Australian legal technologies range from data analytics for in-house legal teams and intelligent cost-comparison technologies, to transaction deal rooms, file sharing and collaboration software, and blockchain-based access to legal aid. Many of these are already sporting global operations, and with the right support, mentorship and funding, we are creating a hotbed of new legaltech innovation Down Under.
In the same way that fintech had its surge, the time for legaltech to have an impact on the Australian (and global) legal industry has arrived.
The role of lawyers in the legaltech world
With all this activity, is a computer-generated outcome to major legal decisions likely?
Already in the US and the UK, major law firms are employing ‘robotic attorneys’ that can perform legal research, answer English questions, provide analyses, and even predict how cases may hold up in court — at some level negating the need for humans to trawl through library books and dedicate hours to potentially futile cases.
While it is unlikely lawyers will be replaced altogether, this kind of automation has the potential to save thousands (if not, millions) of dollars in notorious legal fees and reshape the legal industry.
What does this mean for lawyers, particularly graduates who are entering the workforce as this technology is becoming widespread?
I suspect the number of lawyers engaged in the legal industry will not change significantly, even in the longer term, but that over time the roles of lawyers will look vastly different to what they are today, where technology facilitates or sits at the centre of every legal advice, decision and process.
Universities have a responsibility to draw new generations of lawyers into the growing legaltech eco-system in Australia, future-proof their careers from becoming obsolete, and ensure they are equipped to learn, grow and participate in the inevitably technology-powered legal industry. Being reactionary is not enough. Universities must both embrace the future and participate in shaping it, look for shifts in market power, understand new career paths available to graduates and arm them with essential new skills.
Progress is, at least, in motion. The University of Melbourne has, for several years now, run a dedicated law apps subject that allows students to create applications for not-for-profit organisations to improve access to legal services. This hands-on experience is invaluable for students to understand and contribute to the AI-led legal technology world. For those of us operating in the legaltech ecosystem, it has been a fabulous source of legally trained, tech-savvy recruits! We need more.
Students must also take responsibility for their legal technology knowledge and open their minds to possible career paths outside traditional legal practice. Armed with a wider understanding of the industry, we need to give students enough space to explore and articulate the possibilities that excite them.
So, where to now?
Legaltech activity in Australia is significant and the possibilities for the broader legal industry exciting.
Legal professionals can support and participate in this change in a myriad of ways, by diving into the shifting legal landscape on a regular basis — listening, learning, reading, innovating, testing new software, attending demos, hackathons and seminars and, of course, adopting.
With this change, those who seek legal advice or who participate in the legal ecosystem only occasionally — as corporates, government or individuals — will notice cost and time efficiencies, more informed decision making and better access to justice.
The future is bright — a thriving Australian legaltech ecosystem will benefit us all.
Jodie speaks further on the topic on Expert Hack, a new University of Melbourne podcast series that profiles Australian innovators and change-makers.