Has the Future Arrived?

October 9, 2016

l imagine this is a question (though perhaps more eloquently phrased) that Professor Richard Susskind has been asked ad infinitum in the 20 years since publication of his first book, The Future of Law. Last week’s SCL Annual Lecture was his chance to provide an answer.

His brief had been to see how some of the predictions made in that seminal book have panned out. He did not though ‘wish to mark his own homework’ so he just picked out some of the key points, reminded us of the state of technology in 1996 and then developed some of the themes from the book with a review of where we are now.

On the development of online courts he reviewed his part in writing the Civil Justice Council’s 2015 proposal for online dispute resolution. The concept that the court is ‘not a place but a service’ now seems to have legs within the judiciary and importantly has funding from the Government. The recent Transforming Our Justice statement from the Lord Chancellor et al and Lord Briggs’ final report on the Civil Court structure both backed the ideas behind the report. However Richard cautioned against going too far, too fast saying that the systems needed to be piloted properly to make sure they are accepted and understood by all involved. 

But online dispute resolution, while important, is at the more prosaic end of Richard’s thinking. He would much prefer that disputes are avoided wherever possible through the smarter use of technology to provide ‘the ultimate deliverable’ which is reusable legal advice. This may be in the form of tools, such as the one to help people challenge parking tickets that recently hit the headlines, or initiatives to help people access law and legal information more readily: or as he calls it ‘legal health promotion’ chiming with the idea of medical health promotion. Since 1996, countless such initiatives have confirmed that his general thoughts on the direction of travel were right. 

He also reviewed where we are with the idea that legal work can be deskilled, or ‘decomposed’ as he now says, by either breaking it into chunks or automating it. In particular he explained that even the high value ‘big ticket’ deals that solicitors in the larger firms thought were immune to this process are under threat. Such deals are now regularly being handed to different firms in chunks so that the more routine work can be handled by, say, cheaper regional firms.

Even more disruptive is the threat from the Big 4 accountancy firms, who are larger than the Top 100 law firms put together. A very concrete example of that threat is the recent project announced by Allen & Overy in partnership with Deloitte. Their MarginMatrix™ software “codifies the laws in various jurisdictions and automates the drafting of tailored documents based on an automated legal analysis.” A JV between a leading law firm and one of the Big Four is something that even Richard could not foresee would happen so quickly.

That project also exemplifies two other themes tackled by Richard.

Firstly, systems will be built that embed the rules so that the user does not have to worry about them. His rather ingenious example of how this works was the game of Patience. Played in the old way with a pack of cards you could always slip a red five on top of a red six to unblock an impasse. Try that on a computer and you’ll get nowhere: the rules are embedded in the software. He sees that this will be a crucial development and will help to guide users through whatever legal process is required from probate to managing complex derivatives.

Secondly, it fits in with the recent flurry of announcements from leading firms queuing up to trumpet their use of AI. AI was, to my mind, at the heart of the Richard’s talk. It is AI that is going to provide the tools that can improve access to justice for all users. The MarginMatix product automates a problem that many lawyers were expecting to be a beanfeast for legal advisers over the next few years but that work is now threatened by AI. 

Those who try to push the tide back object that computers cannot make judgements like a skilled human practitioner. Richard’s response is that there are many ways to be smart: to believe that computers have to resemble human thinking for AI to work is a fallacy. Sheer processing power, such as that which enabled Deep Blue to beat Garry Kasparov at chess back in 1997, can perform many tasks just as well. 

Richard expressed some surprise at this sudden burst of enthusiasm so it looks like in some quarters at least the Future has arrived.

But lagging behind, in the UK at least, is legal education. Richard rounded off his talk with a plea for the UK legal education sector to gear up and prepare legal students for this new world. The 21st century will see huge demand for the new roles open to legally qualified data engineers and project managers, but the current legal education system is ill-equipped to provide them. He showed a slide listing a whole host of US university legal technology research centres that have blossomed over the past few years. The following slide of similar English centres was blank. 

His parting thought echoed that of Edward de Bono who gave the first SCL lecture in 1981. De Bono has said that in 1900 it was conceivable that man would one day walk on the moon but it was inconceivable that 1 billion humans would watch the event on TV. This means it is conceivable that something inconceivable might come along to disrupt the development of legal practice that Richard has mapped out. So, in his view, what must happen is for the legal community to embrace the technology that is there now to ease access to justice and support the rule of law. 

So the Future is here: it is up to lawyers to make it. 

David Chaplin is a legal publisher at Bath Publishing and regular contributor to Computers & Law