A Lawyer’s Duty of Technological Competence

I am a doctor, not a...” – famous catchphrase and snowclone used by Dr McCoy in Star Trek

I am a lawyer, not a programmer/technician/engineer...” – Various Lawyers vs. Tech in Hong Kong

Introduction

The legal profession is generally viewed as knowledgeable and learned . Often, the pride which comes with the role has resulted in legal professionals highlighting that they are lawyers and nothing else—putting the importance of other competencies crucial to be successful in the age of technology on the backburner. 

In the age of technology it should be stressed that a lawyer is expected to be competent not just with the law, but also with technology which is becoming a larger and more important part of the profession’s service delivery process. 

The Situation in Hong Kong

It is no secret that the legal profession in Hong Kong is falling behind in terms of technology adaptation than most other jurisdictions. Many lawyers in Hong Kong are still used to paper-based procedures (for instance, most evidence are still presented in affidavits of paper forms) without realising that the technical and technological aspects of the evidence are just as critical (eg printed emails cannot show whether hyperlinks have been tampered with, but the digital file can). 

Take Hong Kong’s first crypto-litigation case (HCA 1980 of 2015) as an example – it demonstrates how solicitors’ failure in recognising and understanding the impact of technology on the relevant evidence might cause detriment to the plaintiff’s case. In that case, the plaintiff’s solicitors’ attempt to prove that their client had keyed-in the intended wallet address by way of referring to an auto-fill history backfired spectacularly. Having left the autofill function on during a cryptocurrency transaction is indeed a sign of security breach on the plaintiff’s part since autofill could have interfered with the input process, resulting in data being stolen, among others. 

Fast forward to 2020, the outbreak of COVID-19 resulted in the Courts of Hong Kong coming to a screeching halt as the General Adjournment Period (“GAP”) was implemented. 

This reflected a stark contrast to other common law legal systems across the world where online filings and online hearings have already been widely implemented for the practical reason of shortening travel distance. 

For example, in the United States, bail hearings are held via CCTV so that remanded persons are not required to travel to Court for mentions. Matrimonial hearings are similarly held online so as to give abused victims added protection from having to be placed within the vicinity of their abusers. Meanwhile in Hong Kong, defendants in criminal proceedings are still required to physically attend court and lawyers are still required to file hardcopies of documents.

This begs the question – are members of the legal profession duty-bound to be proficient in technology and to push for its greater implementation? The proposed answer in this article is yes!

Past, Present and Future Duties

In other jurisdictions, lawyers are required to:

“…Maintain the requisite knowledge and skill, a lawyer should keep abreast of changes in the law and its practice, including the benefits and risks associated with relevant technology, engage in continuing study and education…” 

– Massachusetts Bar Code

Whilst not yet adopted verbatim in Hong Kong, existing rules established in the Solicitors’ Guide to Professional Conduct (“SG”) do provide that lawyers ought to display technological competence (when read together). Such rules include but are not limited to:

Competence

  • 6.01(a) SG – A solicitor has a duty to be competent to perform any legal services undertaken on the client’s behalf.
  • 6.01(b) SG – A solicitor must serve his client in a conscientious, diligent, prompt and efficient manner.

Confidentiality

  • 5.13 SG – A solicitor must observe the duty of confidentiality.
  • 8.01 (Commentary 4) SG – The duty of confidentiality extends to all clients and continues indefinitely after the retainer has ended. 
  • 8.01 (Commentary 29) SG – A solicitor should NOT reveal a client’s address without client’s consent.

It can therefore be pivoted that whether a lawyer is simply a lawyer (and not a technician) is immaterial as a lawyer ought to know the relevant technology well enough to deliver his service competently and be able to uphold a client’s right to confidentiality. 

The Future

Given the rising importance of technology in the practice of law, Hong Kong lawyers must not stagnate. With the recent promotion of various proponents of e-filing systems in the District Court (eg Master D. Ho of the High Court – formerly Mr. Registrar D. Ho of the District Court), it is foreseeable that the experiences gained from the e-filing pilot scheme in the District Court may become more and more applicable in other levels of the Judiciary. Lawyers should therefore be competent in handling digital data moving forward.

Conclusion

Keeping in view that the legal profession is likely to experience a mass technological adaptation in every corner of its spectrum, always remember:

1.   Legal technology is now considered in the domain of legal data, and must be properly managed, protected, secured and given a life cycle.
2.   Privacy, information security and governance are the new norm and must be given priority in a firm’s management; and
3.   Be well acquainted with the new technology and its benefits and risks (eg assessing clients’ data in e-discovery exercises and handling and extracting clients’ data in an appropriate and secured format; and even as be weary of ; or even as minor as the ‘reply all’ function, auto-fills and using free Wi-Fi when delivering legal services).

There does not exist a definite and exhaustive list of technologies that a lawyer must master. Instead, legal professionals should be equipped with technical skills which are frequently employed in the type(s) of cases they handle, and keep abreast of the developments in order to be technologically competent. 

– Joshua Chu, Solicitor
– Steffi Chan, Trainee Solicitor

Jurisdictions: 

Solicitor, ONC Lawyers

Joshua Chu is a Litigation Solicitor qualified to practice in Hong Kong. Before becoming a lawyer, Joshua worked in the healthcare industry serving as the IT department head at a private hospital as well as overseeing their procurement operations.

Since embarking upon his legal career, his past legal experience includes representing the successful party in one of Hong Kong’s first cryptocurrency litigation cases as well as appearing before the Review Body on Bid Challenges under the World Trade Organization Government Procurement Agreement concerning a health care industry related tender.

Today, Joshua’s practice is mainly focused in the field of dispute resolution and technology law.

Aside from his legal practice, Joshua is currently also a Senior Consultant with a regulatory consulting firm which had been founded by ex-SFC Regulators as well as being a management consultant for the Korean Blockchain Centre.

Trainee Solicitor