Ravi Nayyar, member of TLF NSW, recently attended the New South Wales Young Lawyers Golden Gavel. He has written this fantastic review!
18 May 2018 was what the emcee, and our learned friend, Emily ‘Victoria’ Aitken, described as ‘the legal profession’s morning of mornings’. The NSW Young Lawyers Golden Gavel, a sort of pilgrimage for lawyers who enjoy ten brave souls criticising our ‘beloved’ profession. All in the name of good fun. An institution likely as important as the law itself, and proudly running since 1993. The event comprised a terrific mixture of public speaking, stand-up comedy, and cold, hard, facts about the practice of law (well, sort of). It even closed with some wit from The Honourable Justice Fabian Gleeson of the NSW Court of Appeal, patron of NSW Young Lawyers, and a member of the judging panel.
I had the privilege of attending this event, which The Honourable Justice Margaret Beazley once described as ‘the Eurovision of the legal profession’, as a guest of The Legal Forecast. As a lover of stand-up comedy, particularly the self-deprecating kind, I had an awesome time. I loved the calm musing of the winner, Tom Sorrenson, about the multitasking mindfulness of the modern lawyer, and we in the audience were somehow horrified, and amused, during his story about using a phone headset while typing, and somehow operating a sandwich press (burning a limb in the process). Another highlight was the Runner-Up, and People’s Choice Award-winner, Joshua Clarke, who pulled at heartstrings when stressing his love of practising in the Sydney CBD.
The speech that struck me the most, however, was Mama Puna Monica Florence Miranda’s. She cheekily, but incisively, criticised the predicament of lawyers faced with unnecessary, poorly executed, innovation in our beloved profession. Her concluding line captured this quite well:
‘Innovation, we’re absolutely obsessed with it. Don’t ask how we can fix it, though. We’re too busy trying to figure out how we can stuff it up the next time’.
Indeed, this reflects the issue with the very concept of innovation in the legal profession being over-hyped. And polluted by this very hype. At times, it is not even properly evaluated but simply slapped on members of the profession. Such innovation can be criticised as a problem in search of a solution; serving little purpose. Indeed, the argument could be made that this parallels the issue of innovation being properly designed, but poorly implemented, given similar negative results. Proponents of such problematic innovation may label their critics as Luddites, yet refuse to acknowledge that they are arguably a good deal of the source of the problem.
Miranda’s speech gives great examples of such problematic innovation (let’s unimaginatively use this phrase). Firstly, it discusses the role of informal methods of communication among a lawyer, and their secretary, in helping, allegedly, raise the productivity of both parties. But it pointedly questions the value of using memes in actually creating value for clients when it does not really hold either party accountable for their work (or lack thereof) in a reasonable fashion. It probably only provides momentary comic relief from a mountain of work. Secondly, Miranda chides her firm’s rolling out an open-plan office design as another artifice to fool clients who crave their legal eagles to innovate. Indeed, that firm failed to consider the possibility of some employees failing to respect necessary etiquette, which can thus hurt employees’ productivity, as Miranda argued, if they are distracted by the raucous conversations of colleagues about their latest Tinder escapade. Thirdly, and by far the most striking example of problematic innovation, was the PEXA e-conveyancing system, which, according to its website, is ‘digitally transforming the property exchange experience’. Miranda cleverly paints a portrait of a regtech solution, which, though well-intentioned, can have unbelievably expensive consequences in its implementation, even if by a top-tier firm, which presumably would have some of the best IT infrastructure in the CBD. Her use of statistics especially drives the point home: ‘4 lawyers, 103 billable hours, 87 email exchanges, and $6, 500 worth of write-off, [and] we had completed our first PEXA settlement’.
But even then, dear reader, you would be asking me: ‘Why the polemic when reviewing a stand-up gig?’
Well, I say this, as a friend of The Legal Forecast: I champion innovation, not problematic innovation. I consider the latter to be oxymoronic, which is why it utterly riles me. Why should problematic innovation even be ‘innovation’? If we make the mistake of considering it so, then our efforts to (as TLF’s mission states) ‘advance legal practice through technology and innovation’ are at nought. If we fail to call out examples of problematic innovation of the nature as Miranda highlights, then we must ask ourselves whether we truly are ‘passionate about disruptive thinking and access to justice’; whether we truly are committed to driving substantive, valuable, change to this beloved profession of ours; to helping the legal fraternity deliver greater value to even more individuals through greater access to justice, and more efficient legal practice. Change that we can believe in (to paraphrase a certain Presidential candidate’s slogan).
Indeed, I feel it not a matter of ‘if’, or ‘when’, the phenomenon of innovation in our beloved profession comes up. After all, we have seen quite a few names – big, and small, domestic, and global – in the law adopt innovations like artificial intelligence, machine learning, natural language processing, and smart contracts, to drive the aforementioned change. We are also seeing the members of our profession investigate even more exciting innovation. These are delivering results, especially in effectively automating routine tasks, thus freeing up lawyers to apply their faculties to more complex work, which delivers greater value to clients, and the broader community. Dear reader, the practice of law is becoming more nimble, more tailored for the client, and more efficient. We have even heard about how key innovations, like artificial neural networks, will enhance the capability of human lawyers by helping them make decisions that are more data-driven, and thus contextually-appropriate. Hence, dear reader, I feel it not a matter of ‘if’, or ‘when’. But ‘how’.
In answering this question, we as a profession must carefully watch out for problematic innovations like those criticised by Miranda, and nip this toxic species in the bud. Otherwise, we jeopardise the integrity of our #legaltech, and #newlaw, movement, which, I stress, is delivering tremendous value. Our wonderful movement must not be dismissed as a gimmick whose work is apparently not worth the paper it tends not to be printed on. We must be vigilant about the risk of problematic innovations corrupting our message. When we stand in our teams to discuss the next big thing, freshly sketched out on the whiteboard in front of us, we must (to borrow one of Sorrenson’s ideas) take a deep breath, reflect, and then ask ourselves the following:
How does this help make the practice of law more efficient, and/or drive access to justice?
Is this even necessary?
If we ask ourselves these questions while standing at that whiteboard, we would be sure to champion true innovation. We would be sure to avoid, as Miranda argues, ’trying to figure out how we can stuff it up the next time’.
Hence, we would truly, as The Legal Forecast seeks to do, leverage our creativity, our entrepreneurialism, to effect change for the better in the practice of law.
To translate our correctly-held belief – that ‘technology has an important role to play in legal practice, and access to justice’ – into concrete action.
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