Laurence Eastham reflects on some impending changes in legal practice
This issue is dominated by two themes – predictions for 2017 and beyond and articles inspired by presentations at the SCL Tech Law Futures Conference. Those themes are pretty obviously connected.
I have contributed to the Tech Law Futures section as I was one of the speakers at the Conference. I have tried accurately to reflect my presentation in the article on p 32. The essence of my message, arising from a lengthy analysis of the content of past issues of the magazine, was that the technology that tech lawyers deal with has changed enormously over the last 20 years but that their role and work has not.
But, having sat through a day at the Tech Law Futures Conference, I suspect that the rhetorical attractions of 'plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose' may have blinded me to a sea-change. After all, one could pretend that modern life and medieval life are virtually the same – food, water, breathing, walking, talking haven't changed – but it is not a seriously sustainable position. Equally, just because the basics of a tech lawyer's life have not changed from that of a 1990s computer lawyer, it does not follow that the overall life and experience is the same. Yes, the broad legal topics are the same and the race to outflank the stupidity of one's client will never end but the level of technical expertise has risen immensely. I find it slightly irritating that one now has to know what is going on 'under the bonnet', at least in principle and ideally with hands-on experience, but I am convinced that is true. Plus the pace of change and the expansion of multi-jurisdictional work has made it virtually impossible to be an effective one-man band unless the band's specialisation is very narrow; you usually need collaboration either within a firm or beyond it and that means you need collaborative skills that fit with a 21st-century way of working.
This whole idea of things being the same but crucially different was exemplified by the content in the last session, 'Legal Practice Apps & Technological Change'. Much of what was said there produced eerie echoes of the messages sent out by the likes of Neil Cameron, Charles Christian and Martin Telfer in the 1990s: that law firms had to accept the application of technology in their day-to-day workings or become hopelessly inefficient and overwhelmed by those who 'got it'. That message, albeit at a higher level, continues to be communicated by SCL's President Richard Susskind. It may have been a familiar message but we are now looking at leaps into a different world, in the application of AI especially. (Though the AI term is sometimes too readily applied – document automation is not AI.) It surprised me that at least two of the speakers in that session felt that even the larger law firms just did not understand what was involved – and that the long-established reluctance of the legal profession to invest was making it impossible for innovation to take hold. I really thought we were past that and wonder if there is room for SCL to resurrect its evangelical role.
By the time you read this, the 'Happy New Year' greetings will be old hat. My earnest hope is that you have a great new year.
2017 promises to be an exciting year. Clarification of the GDPR, further progress on the digital single market and continuing developments in the Google v EU battle are likely in Europe. In the UK, we may get an idea of how the tech industry will fare in a post-Brexit world and see what the Investigatory Powers Act 2016 means in practice. In the world as a whole, changes in the smartphone market, increased protectionism and mind-boggling new products might be on the agenda. Developments in life sciences, healthcare and robotics are guaranteed and the interface between IT and other innovative technology is becoming increasingly complex.
I just hope we can cope.