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Innovation in law is unstoppable; how ready is your lawyer to cope with it?

Thursday July 11 2019

By LUIS FRANCESCHI
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Justice innovators have been desperately looking for the Uber of justice or the M-Pesa of law… that amazing ‘eureka’ that will change our justice system forever.

How, what and when it will be is not yet known. What we know for certain is that it must come, it is coming and it will arrive sooner that we expect.

It was 9.45 pm on Friday, July 5. Almost 300 young lawyers that could have been partying and drinking, as many young professionals recklessly do on Fridays, were instead glued to their seats, in one of the most engaging discussions I have witnessed in the past years.

It happened at the Lawyers Hub, in Upper Hill, where Linda Bonyo and Wakesho Kililo, two outstanding young lawyers and entrepreneurs, have created a justice accelerator, a safe space for legal innovation.

The panel was being bombarded by exciting and engaging questions, queries, ideas and complaints. We were literally under siege by questions around professional, ethical, and personal issues, even family and faith.

Linda and Wakesho have the magnetic power to attract the masses at the most awkward and wee hours of the day and the week…when others are sleeping, partying or simply wasting their time, the LawyersHub.org attracts young brilliant minds who are restlessly sipping legal wisdom and rare ideas. I could not believe it…this was happening on a Friday evening.

The world has moved on, but justice and the courts have not. The justice system in all its facets (adjudication, practice and legal education) has remained petrified, anchored in the past. Communication, IT, transport, finances, medicine…have all advanced, while law practice remains archaic, slow, unimaginative and boring.

PROPOSED CURRICULUM

A few days before our meeting at the Lawyers Hub, one of the regulator bodies had asked me to assess the proposed curriculum of an upcoming law school. The curriculum was beautifully tailored…just like most curricula in other law schools. I could not help but lament the fact that every subject had the adjective “legal” or the name “law” attached to it. Of course, it makes sense, it is about teaching law; but…there are many buts.

The court system, criminal and civil procedure, case management, law practice and legal education must change. M-Pesa and Uber changed our lives forever. M-Pesa revolutionised banking forever; it irreversibly changed the way we transact, borrow and pay.

Uber pushed the transportation sector off balance. It changed things for the mass market, forever. I now wonder, who will change legal practice if we continue doing business as usual?

If we have been teaching the same way in law schools for decades, how can we expect different results? We are training our young minds, no matter how innovative, to stick to the boring paper-based dusty past method of doing things.

Change is not easy and rosy; it rubs shoulders the wrong way. Wrestling with regulators is, at best, dangerous. Change is always unpopular with the changed though it may be popular with the changing.

When Morgan Gikonyo started Wakili Mkononi he raised many an eyebrow, and the Law Society shunned him. When Gerald Abila started BarefootLaw.org he scared the hell out of many lawyers. His website was offering legal advice to thousands per month and it was for free.

Fast track to 2019, and BarefootLaw is resolving more than half a million legal questions per month in Uganda. They use artificial intelligence and they charge zero. How do they make their money? In the same way WhatsApp does, through data.

EBay is also revolutionising dispute resolution. Their A.I. (Artificial Intelligence) dispute resolution centre resolved almost 60 million claims in 2018. No lawyer was directly involved…but several lawyers who are also I.T. experts participated actively in the coding of algorithms used by this feature.

Sadly, our approach as lawyers has been very much like that of the taxi drivers who stoned Uber drivers when it came to Nairobi. They did not notice Uber had taken over the market until it was too late. Their retaliation was desperate and violent. They stoned and burnt a few Ubers.

We lawyers are very good at applying the violence of the law to protect our kitchen… When reason is not on our side we easily go violent. Nobody is cooking, but it is “our” kitchen and no one should use it. Let people have no access to justice unless they can afford it and pay “me” for it.

The same that happened to taxi drivers with Uber and other similar Apps, and the same that happened to banks with M-Pesa and the like, will soon happen to us lawyers. The market is changing, reality is changing. The modern lawyer should walk out of his or her safe “law space” and venture into the unknown.

BRILLIANT STUDENTS

I have a group of brilliant students who are deeply into learning Python, an AI programming language. Their leader is a young lawyer, Grace Diida, one of the very few lady lawyers from a Northern community in which most girls never reach university.

Grace has recently been successfully selected from among 4,000 candidates who applied for the prestigious masters in Law, IT and Entrepreneurship at CornellTech. She is now actively looking for a loan or a donor who can support her cause.

Change will happen; it must happen. At Strathmore, we ignited the fire of change by making it possible for any law student to choose elective subjects from any faculty in the whole university. So, a law student may choose any random elective to follow their passion: object oriented programming, data analytics, artificial intelligence, financial mathematics, culinary arts, or hotel management. I know other law schools are following suit too.

I dream with the days when students will be allowed to build their own degrees or combination of degrees by choosing subjects from any school. On that day, universities will have become once again what they were created to be, “universal”.

Until then, it is up to every teacher, dean, vice chancellor, practitioner or judge, to foster innovation in the best possible and accessible way…pushing the frontiers of knowledge and doing their best, together with regulators, to think out of the box, to jump out of the big box we have built for ourselves.

Dr Luis Franceschi is Dean – Strathmore Law School. [email protected]