China as the Next Leader in Legal Technology?

Following his recent trip to China, Richard Susskind reflects on the pace of change on legal technology there, sensing a swing of the pendulum and assessing the implications that may have for the legal landscape in the UK and beyond

 I have been in Hangzhou, the capital of China’s Zhejiang province, about one hour by bullet train from Shanghai. It was humid and hot, well over 100° (in old money) which I am told is unusually warm for the season. When Marco Polo arrived in the late 13th century, he described Hangzhou as ‘the City of Heaven, the most beautiful and magnificent in the world’. Built around West Lake, a UNESCO World Heritage site, much of the area is indeed stunning. Its population now tops 13m, which means it is China’s 9th largest city. In Europe and North America, Hangzhou may be best known as the host of the G20 Summit in 2016.

My own host this year, as last, was my friend, Professor Xu Wu. He is a professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism & Mass Communication at Arizona State University and once again has conceived and produced a conference on behalf of Bestone Information & Technology, a listed company led by Feng Yong.

I came via Shanghai, where we stopped for half a day, long enough to climb the second tallest building on earth in the world’s fastest elevator (18 metres per second). The view was extraordinary. Shanghai has almost 5,000 skyscrapers. Manhattan has about 800. In all directions, as far as the haze allowed us, we saw swarms of buildings, striving to accommodate the city’s 25m inhabitants (the entire population of Canada is only a couple of million more than Shanghai's metropolitan headcount of 34m).

As we travelled, Xu and I caught up. He has remarkable energy and, as befits a professor of media, an endless store of alerting statistics about China. Every sentence could be the headline of a press release. One big change since my last visit, just less than a year ago, is that most of China has gone cashless – not payment by plastic but by smartphone using WeChat, a social media platform that is like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter rolled into one. WeChat is a way of life in China with around one billion users.

Xu also spoke in passing about Shenzhen. Just 40 years ago, this was a modest market town, with around 30,000 inhabitants, many of whom were fishermen and their families. Today, this is another technologically advanced conurbation with about 15m people. A city, the combined size of London and New York, has come from almost nowhere in just four decades. It is hard to take in. It took three years to put two extra bedrooms on the back of our home in Hertfordshire.

Slipping back many centuries, Professor Wu told me about early legal publishing in China. As I vaguely knew, the Chinese invented movable type in the 11th century, long before Gutenberg’s printing press four centuries later. I console myself with the thought that the Web really was invented by a Brit.

We also spoke about human rights issues in China. I remain of the view, parochial maybe, that the promotion and adoption of legal technology can play some part in helping improve access to justice and strengthen the rule of law in China. Mr Feng, the head of Bestone, seems to share this view.

Over lunch, as I consumed delicious cubes of black-peppered beef (of which I cannot get enough), Professor Wu talked effusively about the up-coming conference. His idea is to build the ‘Davos of legal technology’, a major annual event. Last year’s meeting in August was the dry run. It was in Beijing and I gave the opening address. I was the only foreigner there and was struck then by the open-mindedness of the legal community – not just of legal technology enthusiasts but of lawyers from major firms and in-house departments. Professor Wu and Bestone felt sufficiently encouraged by the feedback to go for a re-run in 2017, but on a grander scale.

They moved the ‘Summit’ this time round to Hangzhou, in part because of the support of the local government. The city is rapidly emerging as a leading cultural, technological and conference centre of China.

Professor Wu had worked diligently on the branding for the event – ‘Legal+’ which was an abbreviation for ‘Legal + Tech’. At the Marriott Hotel Qianjiang, the venue, ‘Legal+’ was everywhere: on the stages, posters, pens, conference wallets notebooks, t-shirts, and more. But it was tastefully done and it felt like a heavy-duty gathering.

This year, I was not the only foreigner. There were three other invited speakers from beyond China – Brian Kuhn of IBM Watson, David Curle from Thomson Reuters, and Julian Ueberang of Neota Logic. They were very affable fellow travellers and eating companions, as we travelled to, from, and around Hangzhou.

I kicked off Day 1 of the conference, on the morning of Friday 28th July (this was the first of three presentations that I had agreed to give). The organisers had closed the lists at around 600 delegates and the room was full and thrumming. Xu had told me that the audience was a mix of practitioners from innumerable law firms, in-house lawyers from the top 20 Chinese companies, academics, judges, students, legal technology enthusiasts, and many journalists too. The audience looked quite young. Or maybe I am 56.

Some of my books have been translated into Chinese and so my work has to some extent been percolating in Shanghai and Beijing. The first edition of Tomorrow’s Lawyers has been published in Simplified Chinese and Taiwanese – the former has sold more copies than the original in England (although the US remains my biggest market). The translation of the updated, second edition of that book is under way and, in a couple of months, The Future of the Professions, the book I wrote with my son, Dr Daniel Susskind, is also appearing in Simplified Chinese.

I had been asked to build on some of the central themes of these books. My speech was entitled ‘Upgrading Justice’. I had also been invited to speak specifically about AI, and I developed this part of the talk around a distinction that I like to draw between the first wave of AI for lawyers, the rule-based systems that I and others worked on in the 1980s; and the second wave of the last few years, which are predictive rather than diagnostic and are based on large bodies of data rather than rules. These second-wave systems are used, for example, in identifying relevant documents in due diligence and document review exercises, as well as in predicting the outcomes of cases.

I went on to evangelise about online courts and the progress we are making in England and Wales. And I closed by setting a challenge for all jurisdictions: ‘to harness the power of existing and emerging technologies in comprehensively modernising our legal profession, court system, and law schools; and, in turn, to increase access to justice, to support business and commerce, and promote the rule of law’.

It is not for me to mark my own homework but my ideas seemed to resonate. No one ran out screaming, which I always take as a positive sign. Certainly, in the panel session that followed, there was more agreement than dissent. Jinghou Tao, the urbane managing partner of Dechert in China, observed in support of online courts that, in major international arbitrations, it has been common practice for some years for parties to submit their arguments and evidence electronically and for arbitrators to deliver at least some of their decisions by email rather than in person. Professor Andy Sun of Peking University spoke with great energy about the Internet of Things, while Judge He Fan discussed legal reform.

This last contribution was the most significant of the summit. Judge He is a Supreme Court Justice and seems to be leading much of the thinking behind court reform in China. He is a prolific author and public intellectual, and a regular blogger – for an interesting profile, see http://uschina50.foreignpolicy.com/he-fan. I was grateful that Judge He later found the time for a private meeting.

After my session, for the next 24 hours or so, there was a frenzy of speeches. AI emerged as the dominant theme. As ever, the concept remained loosely defined but I suggest that when people talk today of AI in law, they are referring to systems that can undertake legal tasks that we used to think required human lawyers. As well as Bryan, David, and Julian, various other foreign speakers dropped in, either by pre-recorded video or Skype – Brian Liu of LegalZoom, Andrew Arruda of Ross, Bart Verheij of the International Association of AI and Law, and Giovanni Sartor of the University of Bologna. Professor Wu had assembled a fine line-up.

Although the conference was mainly about legal technology, over coffee and food breaks, I enjoyed some broader discussions about law firms and their clients. The most striking observation came from a senior in-house lawyer from one of the world’s largest corporations – she noted that foreign law firms, most notably from the US and UK, are still not managing to offer the legal support that Chinese businesses need in trading around the world. Culturally and commercially, I suspect, attempts to graft Western legal practice onto Chinese commercial activities is not cutting the mustard.

The summit ended at lunchtime of Day Two with a great deal of photo-taking and card-exchanging. By all accounts, WeChat was pulsating with coverage and commentary.

In the afternoon, I put on a different hat – that of Strategy and Technology Adviser to the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales – and visited the West Lake Court. Fortuitously, the court that is said to be the most technologically sophisticated in China happens to be in Hangzhou. The British Embassy had kindly arranged the visit. Professor Michael Fang, an ODR expert whom I had met previously in New York in 2015, generously agreed to be my translator. I was amazed that such a large group of judges and staff devoted their Saturday afternoon to meeting me, especially Judge Lv Minshu from the Higher People’s Court of Province Zhejiang Province, Mr. Cheng Jianfei, the President, and Chen Liaomin, the Vice President, of West Lake Court.

Judge Chen is known as China’s leading judicial protagonist of court technology. I was hugely impressed with what I saw: online legal help for court users; facilities for the e-filing of documents; virtual courts (enabling hearings by video); speaker-independent voice recognition (they have no need now of stenographers); and a demonstration of their first-generation online court services. As I tweeted afterwards, a highlight at the end of the visit was a conversation with Judge Chen using a two-way, real-time voice recognition and translation system.

I left Hangzhou, both exhilarated and disconcerted. For many years, the field of legal technology was dominated by the United States. Over the last decade or so, however, I believe the most interesting and advanced work – in leading law firms, and recently in our legaltech start-ups and courts – has been undertaken in the UK. I wonder now if the pendulum might swing in the 2020s in a different direction altogether – towards China. In the Economist, we read recently about China’s aspirations to be a global leader in AI. I think of the rapid construction of Shenzhen and consider this aim for AI to be entirely feasible. In turn, it is not a huge leap to imagine Chinese leadership in AI and law. Many of the pieces are falling into place – political support, a growing community of home-grown innovators and enthusiasts, technical capability and infrastructure, the ability to invest and change at scale, and a clear appetite for change.

Perhaps I am wrong to peer at future prospects through the lens of competition. In the UK, we might better position ourselves as collaborators with China in the field of legal technology. For now, at least, we would have much to contribute. In the long run, co-operation may be our only way of keeping apace.

Professor Richard Susskind OBE is President of SCL, IT Adviser to the Lord Chief Justice and widely published author.

Published: 2017-08-12T12:40:00

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