Queensland Law Society

QUT Law Society – Meet the Profession

Wednesday 20 March

President's address

“The robot lawyers are coming!”

If you have been a law student for more than five minutes, you have heard this or something like it, and usually followed by, “…and they’ll take all your jobs!”

Let me assure you right from the start that this sort of attitude is a little overblown; the idea that artificial intelligence will replace lawyers has gained some credence with the general public possibly because, as you may have noticed, lawyers in general are not particularly popular.

The wishful thinking of our detractors aside, technology does actually offer some great tools to lawyers, and our profession is embracing them and indeed finding new ways to use them. I expect that sort of thing to continue, and indeed accelerate as old codgers like me, who are about as tech savvy as an oyster, shuffle out of the office and onto the golf course, and are replaced by tech savvy youngsters such as yourselves, who appear to be born with Bluetooth.

So as I think about the future of the profession, what it will look like and what you’ll need to thrive in it, I do see a lot of technical innovation, and I think a lot of it will be firm-by-firm innovation, with individual lawyers taking tech that is designed for one purpose and finding a hundred other ways to use it. Xerox developed the touchscreen for photocopiers, but Steve Jobs turned it into that thing you are using to Facebook your friends.

Some of the advances we are seeing right now, such as current efforts to use blockchain technology to create electronic wills, which will be both impossible to over-write and won’t get lost. At the moment, if you look in the back of Proctor, our profession’s official magazine, you will see a lot of ads asking if anyone has any will in the name of so-and-so; combine an electronic will with an electronic will register, searchable and in the cloud, and you will never lose a will again.

That said, I can honestly say that when I think of the future of the law, what it looks like, and what we’ll be doing in it, I see something that actually looks a lot like we have today. Not because there won’t be change, but because some skills will always be needed and some things will not change too much. I am heartened in this by the fact that computer nerds have been telling me that the legal profession has maybe five years left in it, since 1987; we are still here.

The main reason is that at its essence, the law is about connections and relationships, human interactions. Much of what we do as lawyers is helping people deal, emotionally and intellectually, with stressful, life changing issues. Even when people simply purchase their first home, they are understandably nervous – it is a big deal, the biggest investment most people ever make. As much as they need us to get all the forms and details right, they need even more to have confidence in us, their lawyers, that everything will work out; technology cannot provide that.

That compassionate confidence is ever more necessary as the stakes get higher.

Despite what our media may tell you, most people caught up in the justice system are not hardened career criminals and bikies. They are mostly poor, young and scared witless – and justifiably so. Prison is a terrible place, and terrible things happen there.

When I am talking to a young client facing a potential stint in such a place, he does not need me to recite the criminal code backwards, or display my encyclopaedic knowledge of precedent cases. He wants something to believe in, something from me that lets him know I am going to stand up for his rights, ensure that his voice his heard, his story listened to.

I need him to have that confidence, that belief in me, because nervous witnesses come across poorly, forget vital things and even agree with things they don’t believe, just in an effort to get off the witness stand, to be anywhere but there. A witness in that state could be innocent and end up in jail, so a big part of my job is communicating – communicating that confidence, explaining to the client how I will win, how I will show the jury why they cannot find him guilty.

AI, robot lawyers, they can call up thousands of more cases than I can recall, and access instantly any piece of legislation on Earth. They can’t calm a client, reassure them that it is OK, help them tell their story; I can, and so can you.

Humans simply cannot make that connection with machines, and curiously the more they look and sound like us the worse it gets. A factor referred to us the Uncanny Valley, which describes the strange fact that the more closely AI and robots resemble humans, the less trustworthy we find them; in fact, we find them cold and eerie.

So the skills you need to be lawyers of the future are the ones you have been developing since kindy – people skills; communication, compassion, empathy. You need to develop those skills, and the best way to do it is to get out and involved in the profession in any way you can.

Volunteer, get out into community legal centres, get deeply involved in your communities. Learn how the profession interacts with people, and the role we play; find the path to your passion for the law, because that is what will drive your ability to connect with your clients, to create the confidence. The skill you most need is the respect for the rule of law, the commitment to it; you need to find your way to that place.

You need to believe in the mission of lawyers, the mission of QLS: good law, good lawyers for the public good. To find the spark that enables you to serve the public and the rule of law.

To explain the origin of that belief, I am going to explain where I think my belief began, and to do so I will tell you an amazing but true story; the story of my great, great, great grandfather.

He was a man named Henry Baylis, and – perhaps ironically, given my professional life as a defence lawyer – he was a police magistrate. He had a definitive encounter with a bushranger named Mad Dog Morgan, concerning a dispute of a financial nature: in short, my erstwhile ancestor had a wallet, and Mad Dog Morgan wanted it.

The arguments advanced on either side were not especially artful, with Mr Morgan suggesting the question to be determined was whether Baylis preferred to possess his money or his life, and my great great great grandfather responding with a short, non-Latin phrase which essentially told him to get lost.

Morgan’s argument in response proved somewhat more forceful in that it was advanced not so much by reason as by gunpowder. That gunpowder was enough to advance an ounce-and-a-half of lead through Baylis’ overcoat, undercoat, shirt, undershirt, singlet and a reasonable amount of his body.

It was not enough, however, to kill Baylis, nor persuade him to hand over his wallet. This prompted a comment from Morgan that Baylis was either the bravest man he had ever met, or the most stupid. Of course, not long after that incident Morgan was hanged, and Bayliss lived a long life until having the dubious honour of becoming one of the first people in Australia to be killed by a train, at the age of 95.

So my great great great grandfather probably wasn’t so stupid, or at least a fair bit cleverer than Morgan, but his commitment to the rule of law was very strong, and I hope I have inherited something of it.

The future of the law will be shaped by its honourable past. There will still be lawyers standing up for the downtrodden, giving a voice to the voiceless and fighting back against everything from elder abuse to legislative over-reach.

The skills you’ll need? The ability to a listen to a client’s story, to be compassionate no matter what they may have done, to go through a contract as if it were you putting the money on the line, and be accordingly vigilant. To interact with client, court and colleagues like a human and not a law-bot. Some lawyers in jury trials talk about, when doing their closing, trying to have a ‘moment’ with each juror, one second of eye contact that emphasises their client’s case. Whoever had a ‘moment’ with a machine?  

You’ll need the dedication you get from playing team sport, working in community theatre or for a local charity. The love of community that makes you want to serve it, because that’s what lawyers do, and that belief in the rule of law that underpins our society.

The future of law?

I’ve seen it, and you’re in luck; it looks like you.