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Lawyer-technologists must get on partner track, says Harvard lecturer

07 Oct 2021 / technology Print

Lawyer-technologists must be put on partner track

Knowledge of technology is now a basic competency for lawyers under American Bar Association rules, Harvard legal technologist Dr Ron A Dolin told the LexTech future of law webinar this morning (7 October).

But it will be challenging to cross-train, and set out a career path for the lawyer-technologist that does not limit their growth as a professional, he said.

Technology competence is increasingly complex, Dolin said, and requires analysis of the usefulness of tools built specifically for legal purposes.

“It is not a random word processor anymore,” he said.

People need to train up in this shared understanding of law and technology, and proper careers paths need to be set out, he added.

“The larger the firm, the more necessary it is to have somebody who can continue to look at the lay of the land, and help decide which tools are appropriate for the practice groups in that firm,” he said.

Entrepreneurial sphere

LexTech host, Leman’s Larry Fenelon, responded that this challenged the whole concept of legal partnership, since it involved the lawyer becoming an entrepreneur within a larger entrepreneurial sphere. 

“My own view is that students coming out of law school really aren’t trained for the real world,” Fenelon said.

Legal academia doesn’t generally incorporate technology interaction, which Fenelon finds “startling”.

Dolin responded that it was hard to know what type of faculty to bring in to teach law and technology, but availability of modules was increasing.

“Typically, someone with a joint background would have gone into the law of technology, and not the technology of law,” Dolin noted.

As more sophisticated systems roll out, training that exposes law students to technology will be increasingly important.

“Part of my concern is that this will be viewed much more as a practical class, when in fact there are quite deep academic issues,” he said.

Students must know the pitfalls in the misuse of legal technology, he warned.

Knowledge engineer

And law firms may need to employ a knowledge engineer, in order to make best use of contract-analytics tools, he added.

The firm’s knowledge engineer will talk to a domain expert in law, and translate information into rules that a contract-analysis system will know how to work with.

“And that is not a lawyer doing that job,” he added. 

“Trying to figure out who touches technology in what way is very interesting,” he said.

He warned against the ‘rubbish in, rubbish out’ model of AI use.

Smaller firms should also be enabled to use AI tools, or a virtual practice portal, he said.

The former Google engineer added that knowledge of what technology could do, and of its limitations, was crucial.

Selective enforcement

As a Google engineer, working on computer-security issues, he realised that he was making decisions about selective enforcement in regulating behaviour. 

“I wasn’t looking at law in a normal way, I was looking at it as an engineer,” he said.

Google employs over 1,000 lawyers, he added.

Over time, he realised that he was working in legal technology or informatics, which prompted a move to study law.

“Then I noticed how hard it was for the legal system to pick up or adopt technology,” he said.

“That was mysterious to me, coming as an engineer into the field,” he said.

“I’m not a believer that lawyers should necessarily learn how to programme,” he said. 

However, knowing when to invest in new tools to increase efficiency or quality is a different matter.

“You can’t do discovery without e-tools anymore,” he pointed out.

“And it’s getting that way for analysing contracts.”

In his Harvard Law School classes, Dr Dolin tries to ensure that future lawyers have basic knowledge of technology.

Intelligent users 

“They don’t need to programme it, they just need to be intelligent users of it,” he said.

“You don’t want to get a system that has the functionality you need if the interface is horrible,” he said.

Future lawyers should know how to roll out technology to “maximise benefit and minimise pain,” he said.

And any lawyer who is more than ten years from retirement must grapple with technology, or risk losing their book of business, he warned.

“Your competitors are going to be using this,” he said.

Gazette Desk
Gazette.ie is the daily legal news site of the Law Society of Ireland