Are the Professions Doomed?

*Author’s note: this post relates specifically to the “Designing Expert Legal Systems,” class taught at the TRU Faculty of Law by Professor Katie Sykes. Some references may be obscure to the passing reader, but the overall message remains*

As a law student enrolled in a legal app-making class, you might wonder, as I sometimes do, if you are contributing to the demise of your chosen profession. We recognize the need for access to justice, but cringe as our LOC balances climb.

But is this fear rational? Can access to justice, well-paid professionals and artificial intelligence co-exist? Can we have our app-selected cake and eat it too? Or does the transfer of Jake’s beautiful mind into a question flow indicate that the human touch is no longer relevant?

One of the best (though anecdotal) arguments I have heard to the contra comes from the fundamental human experience: no matter how tight machines reason, they are missing the human component. Would you feel comfortable, for example, with an app deciding the fate of a murderer – particularly considering the high bar for conviction? That is, if someone’s liberty were at stake, would you trust a machine to make the relevant considerations, both factual and moral, to determine that person’s sentence?

To me, these questions infringe on issues of conscience and emotion. It is easy to program a machine on the basis of pure logic (the if-then’s and yes/no’s we’re familiar with as Neota magicians). But the forces driving these rules are harder to pin down. Why is it logical to have a specific legal outcome, in the context of human ethics and morals? At some point, rationality loops back to human emotion. Ultimately, our sense of justice (sociopaths aside), comes not from logic, but from our feelings. It is unlikely that we will project these feelings onto apps, as we don’t fully understand them ourselves. As thinkers like Sam Harris point out, consciousness very much remains a mystery, and might always lie beyond human explanation.

Existential threats aside, there are reasons to believe we will still be gainfully employed. As Tara Vasdani pointed out, there is an explosion of entrepreneurial options for those (such as ourselves) entering the workforce during the human-AI transition. And there is reason (amidst clouds) for hope, even beyond these “first-finder” opportunities.

Richard and Daniel Susskind, a father and son team from England, detail their predictions for the impending techno-age. The bad news is that they expect a fundamental dismantling of the professions as we know them. The need for specialists with particular knowledge/skillsets will inevitably collapse as information is widely disseminated and applied by increasingly smarter machines. Expert knowledge will cease to be monopolized by scholars undergoing years of focused training. The upside – beyond the obvious boon for democracy and access to justice – is that this new technology will require engineers (including knowledge technicians), implementers, managers, and maintenance personnel of all stripes. And, if you are reading this because you are part of the DLES class at TRU Law, you can rest easy knowing you are already a part of vanguard (*pats back*)!

Jokes aside, Daniel Susskind offers some practical advice for young workers: “learn to be good at the sorts of things these systems…cannot do or…try to build the machines” yourself. It is a matter of staying ahead of the curve, rather than being underneath it. More hearteningly, he seems to think that conventionally trained professionals are up to this task. When asked about aspiring doctors and lawyers, he recommends (with caveats) that they take a “traditional” path:

     “But be far more agnostic and open minded along the way about opportunities that come up. Because what’s interesting is that if you look at these technologies – take the systems developed by DeepMind or the ones that recognise melanomas by Sebastian Thrun’s team at Stanford – these teams contain lots of domain experts, such as trained doctors.”

While the message is complicated, it is clear that young professionals still hold an advantage in the job market. The difference, for law students, is that our advantage now stems from exposure to new ideas and thinkers (and networking opportunities), rather than formal education, as it did in the past. The opportunities that lie ahead for us are hard to predict, but will undoubtedly lie outside of our traditional conceptions of what lawyers “do.” In the long-run, Universal Basic Income, and machine replacement of labour, might make these considerations moot. Until then, be kind to the machines, and pray that they decide to erase your debt.

Sources:

Harris, Sam. “The Mystery of Consciousness,” (October 11, 2001) Samharris.org.

<https://samharris.org/the-mystery-of-consciousness/>.

 

Susskind, D. and Susskind, R. The Future of the Professions: How Technology Will

Transform the Work of Humans and Experts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).

 

Tucker, Ian “The Observer: Daniel Susskind: ‘Automation of jobs is one of the greatest

questions of our time,’” (January 28, 2020) The Guardian.

<https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2020/jan/18/automation-jobs-universal-basic-income-daniel-susskind-interview>.

BLDC 2020

Today I had the opportunity to participate in the 2020 Boston Legal Design Challenge (#BLDC2020). It was the first year this competition was held online, and they were therefore able to include teams from outside of Boston proper.

Throughout the day we were invited to participate in exercises with our team members. Our team, the TRU Legal Architects was the only team from Canada. We were accompanied by a facilitator from Liberty Mutual Insurance in a zoom breakout room. Our facilitator led us through a collection of exercises where we collaborated through Mural.co in order to strategize and discuss what we were going to pitch to the judges.

At the end of the day, we competed against the 9 other teams and presented our idea to a panel of 3 judges. Ultimately we pitched the idea of an automated legal consultant who would provide assistance to small firms and sole practitioners looking to digitize their practice at little to no cost. We wanted to provide a resource that would help facilitate a seamless transition online for those who do not have the same resources available to them as would be found in a larger firm. We were thrilled to come in 3rd overall.

A lot of the presentations focused on access to justice and products that would help move the legal profession into the future. It was a very valuable experience and I think the people who participated will undoubtedly do great things for the profession in the future.

Zooming in on Legal Tech in 2020

It happened: I got old.  I don’t know exactly when it happened. Maybe it happened this semester. Maybe it happened over the summer. I suppose it could have happened last year and I just didn’t notice.

I’m not even thirty yet, and still, somehow, I have found myself at the optometrist getting fitted for bifocals so I can read the tiny print in the textbooks without giving myself a massive headache. I got a super ugly pair of orthopedic slippers. I also had set up my work station in a way that didn’t hurt my back and I had to stop using my phone so much, because oh my god, my thumbs were cramping so badly.

I have no idea how to talk to my teenage siblings anymore. They want to do all these phone-based things with me, but I spend so much time staring at a screen, that I find myself asking if we can just go play outside like we did back in the olden days.

A year and a half ago, I was working in a support role at a law firm and was running around the office helping with computer setup, database issues, software problems, whatever. But something changed.

Now, my girlfriend (who is a whopping 6 months younger) cannot understand why I don’t know how to use all the new Instagram features.

I used to be baffled by the baby boomers in my workplace who didn’t know how to edit a word document or conduct a basic document search on the firm database.

But now, I must say, I get it.

Sometimes, the font is just too small. Sometimes, the program set-up, or day to day functionality, is just so complex or so filled with bugs, that it can feel impossible to use. Sometimes, the program just isn’t intuitive, and the setup or navigation process is more complicated than the task you need the program to complete. Sometimes, the help line is closed and you’ve got a thousand other things on your plate that needed to be done yesterday.

I never thought I’d say this, but boomers, I get you.

I get you and I’m sorry for shaming you for your technological deficiencies. I now understand that in order for the field of law to step into the 21st century, we have to make legal tech more user-friendly. No senior partner is going to want to relearn their entire work system at a point in their career when they are experiencing peak success.  If I ever find myself in a web design role, I promise to make the font adjustable and organize the contents logically so that you can easily find whatever it is you need and get back to your shuffleboard game.

To my young gen z friends: you can laugh at me and my reading glasses and my misuse of snapchat filters all you like, but remember, you’re next.

Forced Change: Get With It or Get Left Behind

I first started working around real estate law and conveyancing in 2009.  At that time, the Land Title Office had been accepting electronic filing (e-filing) documents for a number of years, which had replaced the process before, physically land filing all documents at the appropriate registry.  There were a number of lawyers when I started who refused to e-file.  They were used to land filing.  I couldn’t understand it.  For a real estate office in North Vancouver to help someone buy a house in Kamloops, you could hit “submit” from your office or you could literally pay someone to go to the Kamloops registry and stand in line to file the application in person.  It seems like a pretty easy decision which one of those is more conducive to making money and not wasting time. But nevertheless, change is hard. A few years after that, around 2013, land filing became obsolete, and some lawyers never practiced real estate law again.

7 years later, I still work in a real estate firm. In March, the Land Title Office advised lawyers and notaries alike who practice real estate law that e-filing (which requires the used of Adobe Acrobat DC) is being replaced by Web Filing.   I have known about this since I returned to work after exams in April.  I knew this was coming. But I have done nothing, until today, to try and learn how to use the new system. I only tried today because I read some of these blog posts and realized I’m being part of the problem. Well that, and our e-filing applications started saying “this version of the form is being phased out” as of Thursday of last week, so I knew the end was near.

Why is it that although I know change is made for a reason, whether that’s to increase efficiency, help solve common mistakes or help make people’s lives easier, I still find it more of a hassle than a help?  I have been using the same process for 10 years and I know that process inside and out. Until that notice on my application that the end was coming, I had been feeling completely fine about not learning the new system. Of the 300 deals we have done over the past few months, only one was done through Web Filing.  So, I wasn’t alone.   The majority of firms were just like us: used to what we were used to with no desire to change until absolutely necessary.

Taking this class has made me realize how many areas of law could be helped by apps and more importantly, how much time could be saved. The number of times I’ve had to answer questions about what types of transactions GST gets paid on, it almost makes me upset thinking there could be a way for someone to find the answer themselves in a few short questions.  COVID-19 has created opportunities for delivery of legal services that were unheard of prior. The Land Title Office, during the pandemic, has allowed for videoconference signing with clients.  There are many additional requirements but it’s still possible where it was not before.

Between applications for easy access to information and lawyers being forced to embrace change and get uncomfortable more often, I think firms with staff and lawyers more able to respond quickly will have an upper hand.  Eventually, it will either be change, or get left behind.

Big Issues for Small Town Law

Bryce Gardner 

Discussions related to access to justice often discuss the unaffordability of lawyers to a regular person,  or the over-complexity of the law to the non-legal mind. These issues become irrelevant though when there simply are not any legal resources available in your area, a problem all too common in today’s small town Canada.

Nationally, only 8.7% of new lawyers (having less than five years of experience) practice in a rural setting. A survey of the Law Society of British Columbia found that most students would leave the province before considering practicing in a rural area. [1] Of those lawyers who do work in small towns, most are nearing the age of retirement. In B.C. the typical age of a lawyer is about 48, but that can skew to upwards of 52 in smaller communities. In Castlegar, B.C. it’s 65. [2] This makes sense. Most law students come from the city, and why would they ever want to leave the bars, malls and restaurants of the big city to live in a town that only has two traffic lights and the only night club is the 24/7 McDonald’s lobby?

On top the lifestyle issues, there are many obstacles that present themselves to a future small town lawyer. Small town law firms do not have nearly as many resources to recruit and hire potential successors compared to their bigger counterparts. Small town lawyers often have to provide much more general advice on a broad range of topics, something that is hard to do in a legal world where people are encouraged to specialize. The biggest obstacle is the financial aspect. Small town firms often have to start from the ground up and law schools do not teach much in terms of practical business operations. Small town lawyers often earn less than a Vancouver or Toronto lawyer but work fewer hours. As with any obstacle, however, all that is needed to overcome these issues is some creative thinking and innovation.

The Canadian Bar Association’s Rural Education and Access to Lawyers Program (REAL) has already tried to fulfill some of the demand for small town lawyers across BC. By helping find summer positions and providing funding, this program helps to give law students a taste of small town law with the hope that they will stay.  In 2010, the Law Society of Manitoba introduced a program to offer a limited number of law students the opportunity to have their student debt forgiven (up to $25,000 per year of tuition and living expenses) if they work in an underrepresented community. [3] These programs do not do enough though, as they often only entice law students who already came from small towns. Enticing those born and raised in the city is much harder.

If the Canadian Bar Association wants to get more lawyers in small towns, I recommend they should try the following:

1)  Use lessons learned from this pandemic about working remotely. So many people have been working from home and so many people will not want to return to their commute once things return to the (new) normal. Many of the small town lawyers I have met work out of home offices and never had a commute to begin with. Additionally, many lawyers have been forced to conduct research online rather than relying on a physical library. Let people know that if they like working from home it is all the more possible as a small town lawyer.

2) Establish a legal incubator within relevant communities that would provide legal and business training to articling students and new lawyers while at the same time providing affordable and accessible legal services to people in rural and remote communities. [4]

3) Better educate law students about the benefits of small town lawyer life, such as more affordable housing and lower living costs, fewer working hours (on average) and generally more meaningful work right out of law school (rural lawyers often have complete control over an entire case).

4) Provide law students with shorter programs (such as one week) to job shadow rural lawyers and see what life is like, without having to commit several months over a summer.

Perhaps I have now convinced you to give small town law a try (though statistically, probably not).  Like any access to justice problem all we can do is think about it and try to figure out solutions. If anyone wants to discuss further I’ll be at McDonald’s tonight having a drink.

Sources:

[1] Tonya Lambert, “Promoting the Practice of Law in Rural, Regional & Remote Communities” (January 7, 2020), online (blog): Law Now <https://www.lawnow.org/promoting-the-practice-of-law-in-rural-regional-remote-communities/>. 

[2] Jim Middlemiss, “Small communities struggle to pry lawyers from Canada’s big cities, despite promise of jobs”, National Post  (Oct 1, 2013) <https://nationalpost.com/news/canada/small-communities-struggle-to-pry-lawyers-from-canadas-big-cities-despite-promise-of-jobs>.

[3] Lambert, supra note 1.

[4] Ibid.