Getting Prepared to Ensure a Win-Win

The defeat of Ke Jie, the world’s top Go player, by Google’s Alpha Go in May last year rocked the world, and was heralded by the tech community as the triumph of artificial intelligence (AI) over the human brain.

At the time however, that milestone would seemingly have no impact on the legal industry. Legal practice is not chess. Yet, six months later in November, AI beat lawyers in a fascinating contest on claims outcome prediction. Over 100 commercial London lawyers signed up for the competition. Both the lawyers and the AI were given the basic facts of hundreds of payment protection insurance mis-selling cases and asked to predict whether the Financial Ombudsman would allow a claim. The lawyers worked on the cases in an unsupervised environment for a week and submitted their predictions of the outcome of those claims. The cases were real complaints that had been decided by the Financial Ombudsman Service. The AI programme, CaseCruncher Alpha (masterminded by three Cambridge law students) won by a huge margin, scoring an accuracy of 86.6 percentcompared to the lawyers’ score of 62.3 percent.

While there is no need to read too much into one contest, the increasing sophistication, complexity and availability of AI programmes are bound to impact the legal services sector. The way forward is to study the nature and likely extent of the impact, be prepared and strategise in advance to make a positive difference.

At the end of October 2017, the Law Society of England and Wales published a forecast of the legal services sector. The forecast projected that over the longer term, the number of jobs in England and Wales will be increasingly affected by the automation of legal services functions. By 2038, total employment in the sector may be 20 percent less than it otherwise would have been. These forecasts were based on research showing that in 2016/17, law firms in England and Wales had already replaced 3 percent of qualified solicitors, 5 percent of paralegals and 9 percent of non-fee earning staff with automated / IT based systems. From a business perspective however, the forecast predicted that the adoption of new technologies will double the growth of law firms’ productivity from the current 1.2 percent per year to 2.4 percent per year within a decade. Thus, the projected 20 percent job loss is expected to be offset by the increase in the demand for legal services and continued growth.

The development of AI also fuels new ways of legal services delivery, resulting in the proliferation of unconventional legal service providers. Some providers may try to take advantage of advancing technologies to exploit regulatory grey areas. Before selecting their service providers, the public must ensure that they fully understand the nature of the services and protections that these service providers offer.

Consequently, the emergence of unconventional legal services delivery enabled by technological advancements has prompted legal professional bodies around the world to reflect on how the public can be better protected, in particular the role that governments can and should play. The Policy Committee of the Bar Issues Commission of IBA (International Bar Association) is scheduled to consider some proposed updates to the IBA International Principles on Conduct for the Legal Profession in May 2018. It is proposed that in addition to the Principles and their commentary, a set of guidelines should be included, summarising the appropriate standards that should apply to the delivery of legal services. The draft guidelines list out the purposes that legal services should fulfil and urge governments to ensure that these purposes are met and the appropriate standards safeguarded through direct regulation, consumer protection and/or criminal legislation.

Technology has the power to shape the future of the legal profession. As stakeholders, our responsibility is to actively engage ourselves in the process and ensure that our professional identity, characterised by the values we uphold, remains intact. To be able to actively engage in the process, competence in the use and management of law-related technologies in an ethical manner is essential. Training in these areas for working lawyers is necessary, but including this training as early as possible (such as during their legal education in law school) would be the most effective. Apart from training, inspirational activities like Hackathons are helpful in raising the awareness of the connection between technology and professional values.

Hackathon is a popular new initiative that has been launched in different overseas jurisdictions in recent years. It takes the form of a competition among teams of tech experts and legal professionals to develop transformational ideas about the justice system. A recent Hackathon is the Online Courts Hackathon held in London in July 2017. It was jointly organised by the Society for Computers and Law chaired by the legal futurist, Professor Richard Susskind, Legal Geek, the Judiciary of England and Wales and the Courts & Tribunals. The concepts developed by the winning team at the Hackathon will be further explored by the Judiciary of England and Wales.

The Law Society will be organising its first Hackathon later this year. It is a two-day competition on developing computer programmes that aim to enhance access to justice. Through the Hackathon, we hope to encourage the profession’s active participation in using technology to advance our professional values.


Secretary-General, Law Society of Hong Kong