Hey law students: Want a job? Well, you better learn to code.

By March 14, 2017Bitcoin Business
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Law students need to be comfortable with technology as well as precedents.
Law students need to be comfortable with technology as well as precedents.

So you got into law school? Congratulations, it's time to start thinking like an engineer.

Universities around the world are introducing classes that train students in the use of legal software, assisting with anything from contract creation to legal research. But are students simply training the algorithms that will take their jobs?

It's increasingly clear automation won't only affect manufacturing. A 2015 report by the Committee for Economic Development of Australia found that as much as 40 percent of Australian jobs could be replaced in the next couple of decades. White collar professionals, including doctors and lawyers, will not necessarily be spared.

In fact, law firms are already rolling out legal software. The University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Sydney, Australia is one of many to schools to introduce courses training students in their use.

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Petra Stirling, head of legal capability and transformation at Gilbert + Tobin, the law firm supporting UNSW's new course, said the company's aim is to develop the lawyers of the future. In her firm, they already use a tool that helps lawyers identify how a contract or a deed should be signed, among other things.

"It's quite a complex area of law, and we've codified that in the expert system, which saves quite a substantial portion or time and increases the accuracy," she explained.

In Stirling's view, there's only a short window where it will be acceptable for a student to graduate without technology skills or without demonstrable aptitude.

"Lots of that boring, technical work can be done more easily, and perhaps more accurately, by one of these systems."

"A number of students come to us now having either developed their own prototype, set up their own startup during their teenage years, or experimented with different forms technology — mined for bitcoin," she said. "Often nothing to do with the law, but pursuing their own interests."

While Stirling said software already reduces some of the manual processes and repetitive research tasks that are often performed by junior to mid-level lawyers, she suggested that, for the moment, it does not replace any particular role. Instead, it frees lawyers up for more strategic duties.

The software used by UNSW students is made by American firm Neota Logic. The company's managing director for the Asia Pacific, Julian Uebergang, argued programs that replicate the thinking of lawyers tackling routine legal problems simply add extra efficiencies to a law firm's work.

"We use the term 'compliment' because I think it compliments what lawyers are trying to achieve," he explained. "We focus on some of the more routine questioning and things clients aren't willing to pay for."

For now, the technology still requires a lawyer's oversight most of the time, but for how long? "It's certainly capable of encoding and replicating much more complex and expert capabilities like a more senior lawyer or a partner," Stirling added.

"I think there are a number of overstatements about the speed at which robots will take over the role of a lawyer, but if we don't aim for that outcome or at least the possibility of data, AI and robotic advice, we'll miss out on the fascinating opportunities."

Lyria Bennett Moses, an associate professor at UNSW who convened the course, emphasised such systems still have limitations.

"If you have tools like this, yes, they will replace a lot of what is currently entry level work," she said. "Lots of that boring, technical work can be done more easily, and perhaps more accurately, by one of these systems."

Still, when the algorithms mess up, you'll need a human lawyer to come clean up. Pointing to the robodebt scandal rocking Australian social service provider Centrelink, in which an automated system appears to be sending incorrect debt notices to welfare recipients, Bennett Moses suggested there may be plenty of situations where illformed automation ends up creating more work.

"More decision making is being automated, but there are always moments where a human has to come in and say, 'hang on, this has gone wrong.'"

So yes, it's time to start those coding classes, future law students. As if you needed an extra reason to stress.

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