Lawyers Must Adopt Three Mindsets to Succeed in the Technology Age

Recent news reports are replete with declarations about how the new ABCD technologies (artificial intelligence (AI), blockchain, cloud and data) have and will change the services industry, from fintech for the financial services industry, to lawtech for the legal services industry.

Lawyers are trained as expert problem-solvers to serve their clients. Yet, in the May-June 2019 issue of Harvard Business Review , Sydney Finkelstein rightly cautions: “Don’t be Blinded by Your Own Expertise”.

Extensive past experience and success can lead to overconfidence and being blinkered when faced with new challenges arising from new technologies, competitors and business models.

At the recent Inter-Pacific Bar Association Annual Meeting and Conference, Singapore’s Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon described technological changes giving rise in law to new products, new players and new processes.

Like other learned professions, continuous education is a licensing requirement for all lawyers to keep up-to-date to maintain their duty of competence and professional standing.

Yet the impact of technology extends beyond domain expertise and practice management skills.

Singapore’s Chief Justice Menon described technology as presenting the legal profession with a “wicked problem” which “cannot be readily be solved by conventional straight-line thinking or single-actor one-shot solutions”.

In the United States, the American Bar Association (ABA) Model Rules were amended in 2012 to require that lawyers “keep abreast of changes in the law and its practice, including the benefits and risks associated with relevant technology.” According to Professor Renee Knake, Doherty Chair in Legal Ethics at the University of Houston, “Thirty-five American states have adopted this amendment. At least one has disciplined a lawyer for failing to comply.”

More pointedly, the Final Report of the Consultants to the Hong Kong Legislative Council Standing Committee on Legal Education and Training on Comprehensive Review of Legal Education and Training in Hong Kong observed in April 2018:

“Technological and associated organisational disruption of legal services has important implications for access to justice, the business of ‘doing’ law, the skills required of new lawyers, and, perhaps, the demand for new lawyers as well. These developments require both new knowledge and skills… and, it is argued, potentially a different mindset.”

LITE Lab@HKU was soft-launched late last year by Hong Kong University’s Faculty of Law in conjunction with its Department of Computer Science as part of HKU Fintech Day to foster future-ready mindsets and skills in law, innovation, technology and entrepreneurship (LITE) amongst aspiring lawyers as well as those interested in better understanding and serving the law, regulation and justice using technology.

Yet it is critical that lawyers from law firms, corporate legal departments, government and regulators who have decades more of their careers ahead of them also develop future-ready mindsets and skills.

Future-ready lawyers should embrace three critical mindsets:

(1) Client-centric mindset to improve lawyer’s value proposition

At the core of the lawyer’s profession is the duty of care and loyalty to our clients. Yet the “user experience” enjoyed by many legal clients (external and internal) is often less than optimal. Advising on what clients need to hear rather than want to hear is important, but specialist experts too often focus on getting the “right answer” using established modalities and fail to adequately consider other aspects of client satisfaction.

Increasingly, user/client-centric design thinking is being applied to legal services to address this, including at law schools such as Legal Design Lab at Stanford Law School, at global law firms such as Baker McKenzie and at consultancies such as Lawyers on Demand.

Adopting a client-centric mindset can allow lawyers (private practice, corporate in-house and government) to better, and be better perceived to, “add value” to the clients rather than being a “necessary evil”.

(2) Process-conscious mindset to improve operational efficiency

Legal expertise is often attributed to the accumulation of years of experience and “gut instinct”. This is perhaps not surprising, given the historic apprenticeship system that originated from London’s Inns of Court and precedents being at the core of the Common Law tradition.

At investment banks, financial advisory work such as initial public offerings (IPOs) has long been seen to be “high touch” and “high end” work. Yet a few years ago, Goldman Sachs reportedly identified 127 steps required by bankers to undertake an IPO in their efforts to automate and eliminate hundreds of hours of human labour to allow bankers to spend their time with more value-added services.

Much of the process and workflow of legal service can similarly be identified to improve efficiency for potential automation. This corresponds with the rise worldwide of legal administrators and operations, with organisations like the Association of Legal Administrators and Corporate Legal Operations Consortium (CLOC), which opened its CLOC Australia Institute in September 2018.

Documents and contracts form a significant part of the transactional lawyers’ daily worklife, and technology can and does assist with this. Areas of implementation includes document management, review, completion, automation, analysis, drafting support and lifecycle management. Similar analogous processes apply to litigators’ case management.

Adopting a process conscious mindset allows lawyers in law firms and law departments to better redesign and co-create more efficient ways to do work.

(3) Technology-friendly mindset to improve domain expertise

Technology has traditionally been primarily associated with efficiency tools (like typewriters, dictaphones, fax machines, word processors, mobile phones, Blackberries and laptops of earlier eras).

The ABCD technologies do dramatically change this. Digitization means that the printed word in legislation, court decisions, contracts and evidence is now data, which can be more easily filed, transmitted, searched, and analysed, almost regardless of the physical location of the lawyer and his or her client at any given point in time. Furthermore, such data can even be transformed into digital assets of value that can be traded.

One of the worst kept secrets of the profession is that many individuals entered into the law because of an aversion to numbers, including mathematics and technology.

In an era when engaging outside counsel is increasingly being seen as just another procurement process; when many services worldwide are being “productized”; and when the businesses and governments to whom many lawyers serve are themselves being disrupted by technology, lawyers must embrace a technology-friendly mindset rather than one of fear.

While many (especially younger) lawyers will do well to learn coding to be able to better create the tools that can improve client experience, operational efficiencies and legal analysis, I would argue that good lawyers steeped in logical thinking would equally do well if they simply learn more about and adopt computational thinking to better co-create tools and products and improve their legal analysis of the new ABCD technologies.

A technology-friendly mindset means also being cognisant of data, networks and their implications. Being data conscious allows good lawyers to improve their legal research, analysis, insights and predictions. Being network conscious allows good lawyers to better understand and analyse decentralised approaches of many new business models, including some of the new legal service marketplaces. The burgeoning legal reach of privacy and cybersecurity additionally reinforce the importance of these two areas.

Once good lawyers calibrate and embrace these three mindsets, they will be better placed and more receptive to the new ways of doing business, organising their worklives and better serving clients that the ABCD technologies enable through lawtech and regtech. 

Jurisdictions: 

Founder, ACMI and LITE Lab@HKU

Brian W Tang is founder and managing director of ACMI and founding executive director of LITE Lab@HKU. Brian was previously at Credit Suisse in Hong Kong and at Sullivan & Cromwell on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley where he advised on some of the world’s largest and first-ever financial services and technology capital markets, M&A and project finance transactions. He is co-chair of Fintech Association of Hong Kong’ Regtech Committee, was on Hong Kong Corporate Counsel Association’s Executive Committee and graduated with a LLM from NYU and BA/LLB(Hons) from UWA. Brian graduated from The University of Western Australia with a combined Bachelors of Arts and Laws (with honours) and from New York University School of Law with a Masters of Laws.