Southern Cross University Student Law Society Dinner
Friday 21 July 2017, Mantra Twin Towns
President's keynote address
Firstly, I would like to acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the land on which this event is taking place, and pay respect to the elders past and present who play the unique role in the life of this region.
“The first thing we must do is kill all the lawyers!”
Good evening – are you all having a good night so far?
Thank you for having me tonight – I look forward to chatting with you later and am keen to see you all kicking up your heels later on. But for now let me explain my opening statement.
To a crowded Supreme Court earlier this year I gave a speech opening with that line: “The first thing we must do is kill all the lawyers.” Just like you today, I witnessed gasps from the bench infused with the query: where is she going with this?
It is a quote from Shakespeare in his play Henry V – he was dramatically identifying that for chaos to reign you must rid society of all the lawyers. Flipped on its head he was telling us that for there to be a just and equitable society, lawyers are essential.
You will have been told that there are robots coming to take your job.
Yes “science and technology revolutionize our lives, but memory, tradition and myth frame our response” ( Arthur Schlesinger – Historian.)
I’m not so concerned by digital disruption, mostly because I work with computers a lot and while they are a wonderful tool, they can be as reliable as a politician’s promise.
I wouldn’t like to be on trial for my life and, after telling my robot lawyer to run the “final submissions” file, getting the message “404 Error-file not found”, or maybe “for some reason Robotlawyer 3.0 is not responding; would you like Microsoft office to look for a solution on-line?”
I think it would be a tad embarrassing to ask the court to wait while you turned your robot lawyer off and back on again, hoping to re-boot it.
Despite what many tech-heads and doomsayers regularly claim, although technology is disrupting the law and the profession, and providing powerful new tools and force-multipliers for lawyers, we are not being replaced.
We are doing what we do best – adapting. The advent of technology certainly brings challenges, but also benefits – this is a good news story for us – rather a celebration of the opportunities on the horizon.
While “one machine can do the work of fifty ordinary people. No machine can do the work of one extra-ordinary person” (Elbert Hubbard). This room is full of extra-ordinary people.
We bring a great deal to the practice of law, and one of the main things is a morality and ethics that a machine could never replicate.
Far from being our death knell, the rise of new technologies throws into sharp relief the extraordinary – and unique – benefits we bring to the equation.
Lawyers are the conscience of the legal system, and we bring an understanding that only if justice is even-handed and blind to bias will the community buy in and consent to abide by the decisions of courts. Absent that consent, chaos will rule – it is the duty of our profession to conduct ourselves in such a way to create and maintain faith in the system we serve.
You may have heard me comment or perhaps seen in QLS publications that QLS represents good law and good lawyers. We have recently added a third line to that: for the public good.
Although those words are implicit from the original lines, it is important to highlight the fact that ultimately lawyers are responsible to the community, and must strive to make our community work in a fair and just way.
That is a requirement of society that will never change, and so there will always be a need for us, even if it is not always apparent.
For lawyers of courage, who see the future as an opportunity and each challenge as another chance to demonstrate our good in society; we are not bench-warmers nor spectators, and we aren’t scared of the future.
Those of us here today – we are signalling that we intend to be a big part of it – an active and positive participant in our own future.
How do we do that in the face of so much technological change? Yes, technology is shaping the way we work, live and conduct our social interactions.
But I pause here to cite the words of John F Kennedy “Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or the present are certain to miss the future.”
When I first entered the work force, telex machines and DOS computers were the height of technology.
I’m sure many of you don’t even know what those things are!
Now we have personal computers, laptops, portable tablets and smartphones that can fit into our pocket or handbag costing a just few hundred dollars (the phone that is).
In fact, I see many of you with your phones in your hands or on the table now! We are only ever a breath away from communication. So please tweet and tag me in @christineasmyth and @qldlawsociety; ‘like’ the QLS Facebook page and link up with me on LinkedIn.
Today, technology is utilised in everyday life and in business. It allows us to effortlessly and seamlessly connect with each other and clients in ways that in my earlier days of practice we simply did not imagine.
A bit like the driverless car – it was a product of mere fantasy and a lifetime away from fact.
In order to move forward, we must look back at from where we’ve come – and in fact – what it even means to work in this profession we call law.
What is a lawyer?
So what is a lawyer? And why are we different to other professionals?
A lawyer does not merely hold a law degree – I’m sorry to tell you that as you proceed through the gruelling stage of exams, assignments and late night cramming sessions!
A law degree is merely one of the many criteria we satisfy before we may become a registered Australian legal practitioner and maintain that position.
Lawyers occupy a critical and sensitive place in the functioning of a democratic society governed by the rule of law.
It is not commonly understood that in Australia a lawyer’s first and foremost duty is to the Court – not the client. The reality of a lawyer is that what we do is much more than a job or a business.
To hold the position of an officer of the Court we must first prove that we are ‘fit and proper’ to hold such an office to be admitted to the roll of legal practitioners.
For this reason, lawyers have a duty to encourage public confidence in their profession – you may see that this year I have spoken to the media on various high-profile stories explaining the law and ensuring members of the public understand that our justice system works.
To encourage this confidence, we must all do our part to maintain the highest of ethical standards while always acting first to the Court but also acting in the best interests of the client and the wider community.
The integrity of our legal system – and therefore the faith the public have in that system – is inextricably linked to the integrity of lawyers.
Our profession carries the responsibility to be the face of the law. The part of the justice system that members of the public interact with through the process of the law.
Our responsibility is one where confidence in the system starts or stops with us.
That is the burden lawyers carry, and it is something we take very seriously.
It is the reason our fundamental duty is to the court and the administration of justice; it is nothing short of a duty to uphold the law. If we fail, the law fails, and if the law fails chaos reigns.
Essentially, ethical duties are about trust; for the system to work, a lawyer must be able to be trusted – by court, client, community and colleagues.
While technical skill is now essential, our true value as lawyers is in being a trusted advisor.
Our role is to be the human face to the human problems our clients present us. It is one of the great benefits of representing clients – the people you serve are the people in your local community; your children’s school teacher, the barber, baker, butcher, business person.
Getting legal information from the Internet is like taking a drink from a fire hydrant. While technology improves our ability to deliver services to clients, it is our ability to synthesise and apply that information in a way suitable to the people we serve is what distinguishes us.
The other side is that this constantly evolving world of the internet brings about many legal issues that current legislation does not cover.
Take the driverless car; a recent Scientific American article opines that driverless cars are being programmed by technology companies to make decisions which may have moral and ethical aspects. For example, instead of swerving to avoid a child on the road, given a choice between the occupants’ safety or that of the child, the car will always run over the child, because they can guarantee the safety of the occupants, not that of the child.
The prospective litigation against the programmers is tantalising, given that most drivers would swerve to avoid the child every time. The decisions of machines, not lawyers nor ethicists, may be mathematically logical but lack the human element of justice.
You will witness many new initiatives throughout your careers as our modern practice evolves, and utilises technology on an increasing level.
Critical to this evolutionary process is another essential of legal practice: collegiality. The professional friendships and relationships you build throughout your careers and practices will sustain you in down times and benefit you in ways that you cannot imagine, and it is important to nurture and maintain those friendships.
The ever-expanding opportunities and freedom of choice that lay before you mean that your future path is not set in stone.
I look forward to seeing what the future brings for our profession, and encourage you to utilise both technology and the wisdom of those that have gone before you throughout your careers to be the best you can be.