People First

Secretly, lawyers love being wrong.

We love being wrong because it means that our worst predictions have not come true.

I love being wrong just as much as the next lawyer, but I have to tell you, I don’t think I am wrong about this.

Right now, about 90% of the focus of our profession is on technology improvements as the big hope to take us forward. But I am quite convinced that these are no more than 30% of the solution.

And that is because the business of law is the business of people.

Yes we deal with a lot of documents and a lot of information and some of us still have to fill out out forms, but in order to bring about meaningful improvements we need to get to the heart of our profession to understand what it is that we lawyers really do.

I don’t think many of us understand what makes us good at our jobs.

We tend to think of ourselves as brains in a jar, very clever intellectually but that’s about it. A powerhouse of intellectual and commercial knowledge, largely disconnected from the human elements of ourselves. Much of the fuss about machine learning is about this part of lawyering – a machine that can read a contract 6 times faster than a human! A machine that can scan thousands of documents for content 100 times faster than a human! A machine that can write a contract based on simple prompts 10 times faster than a human!

These things are great (assuming they work). But those skills are not the skills that make us good lawyers.

The secret to being a good lawyer is a powerful imagination and a deep sense of empathy. Yes, you heard me right. Imagination. And empathy.

To be good at our jobs we need to be good at putting ourselves into the shoes of the people who make up the institutions who govern and influence us (as well as understanding our clients and behaving in a trustworthy and sensitive way).

To be good lawyers we need to intimately understand the institutions that govern us and our clients. This requires a finely-honed sense of institutional and community drivers. In other words, we need empathy for the people who comprise our institutions (especially judges) coupled with a deep understanding of the zeitgeist as it is relevant to regulators, politicians and the media.

Lawyers are here because as a society we have chosen to govern our behaviour through the rule of law. The institutions that uphold that rule of law are, at their essence, constructs of society which are intended to distil, reflect, protect and sometimes enforce our moral values. Parliament, the Judiciary, Regulators – they all act in service of the people. Ultimately they act to protect what society agrees is ‘good and right’ or at the very least, ‘necessary’.

It’s easy to get distracted by the day to day of being a lawyer, but for most corporate lawyers, our practice is pivoted towards the institutions that guide our clients. For litigators – the Court. For corporations lawyers – ASIC/ACCC. For project lawyers – the Court, the Parliament, Ministerial decision makers and the court of public opinion.

I know we need to get better at being efficient. We absolutely have huge gains still to be made in how we do our jobs. You certainly won’t get an argument out of me that at least some parts of what lawyers do can be automated or handled by machine learning or artificial intelligence. We also have so much to learn from the tech and creative industries. We can certainly adopt intuitive and genuinely timesaving collaboration tools such as Trello, Asana and Monday and I have seen what an automated contract by Automio can do and let me tell you, it is a thing of beauty.

But tech without people, fails.


Technology that makes people do more administration and not less is a fail.


Technology that creates a barrier between the client and the lawyer is a fail.


Technology that people hate to use is a fail.

Technology that is designed to make money out of a particular interest group (cough, lawyers) but has not been created in deep and meaningful consultation with said group? Fail.

What we need just as much as technological disruption is people disruption.

How can it be that a junior I know at a supposedly cutting edge firm was refused his request to work at home, while he spent 3 months exclusively on an electronic due diligence? 3 months, day after day, sitting at his desk compiling a due diligence report entirely on his own using nothing but the database available through his computer screen. Just so the partner could see the top of his head every day and know he was there.

I won’t bang on about it, but how can it be that working mothers still leave law firms because of conflict over breastfeeding, return to work schedules, or the small issue of their entire practice being given away while they are on maternity leave (and no one will give it back)? Why are there still (basically) no lawyers working job-share, despite it being an obvious solution to working parents who want to do great work but for less than full time hours?

My point is that I am yet to see how technology will fix the biggest single issue facing the legal profession. Technology already lets women (and men) work on their days at home, after the kids are in bed and on the weekends. That doesn’t seem to have levelled the playing field for women or improved the lives of men, does it?

While I’m all for investing in and pursuing gains with technology, what I am against is a focus on technology which is not designed for the people who use it, or technology that makes life worse and not better. And what I am against is organisations spending huge amounts of money and time focusing on technological change, and largely ignoring the need to revolutionise the way they manage their most valuable resource – people.


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