The face of law practice and teaching will never be the same again

Wednesday March 18 2020

The Ironmongers Hall in central London is strikingly beautiful. The carved old shields on its walls and ceilings covered in dark mahogany hide a rich history and plenty of traditions.

The hall had been beautifully arranged for the occasion. The lights had been purposely dimmed, and the bare cedar tables were adorned with candlesticks, stiff napkins and an impressive array of crockery, cutlery and glassware.

I had been invited to give a keynote address at the Slaughter & May’s 8th annual Practical and Legal Exchange African Symposium (PLEASe) dinner. The speech took place at the right time, just between the second course and the dessert. Everyone was silent and all eyes were on the podium. It felt like Harry Potter in Hogwarts School of Wizardry.

The future of legal education and practice is full of uncertainties. Ideas, projections and prognostics vary and conflict with each other. No one knows exactly what will happen, but things will surely change; law practice will change and with it legal education too.

Most mature, seasoned and successful lawyers become uncomfortable when change is mentioned. Everyone has finished the second course. The dessert had not yet come. There was pin drop silence.

Where will change happen? Where will innovation be born?

Developed countries with a more or less stable, though not perfect, rule of law, do not need to think outside the box. For them the box is big; it is their comfort zone where things continue operating predictably as they have always been.

The reality in developing countries is radically different. Our justice system is unpredictable, imperfect, uncomfortable and expensive. Students and young professionals in the justice sector have a very small box and they are constantly thinking outside the box.

In our countries, we have brilliant minds mingled with poor infrastructure, high levels of education hand in hand with corruption and inefficiency. Just the right mixture for innovation to happen.

Our world is changing; I have known young law students and graduates who have created amazing ventures like, WakiliApp and innovation spaces such as the LawyersHub. I have had law students who have created profitable mobile apps like Fundi’s; youngsters like Grace, Nichole or Maria who have taught themselves python; law students who love mathematics, finance, programming and economics.

The fear of math, IT and sciences

In the past, any law student would fear mathematics, IT, science… Today, they are becoming more daring and many can swim comfortably in the deep end, where collaboration happens…where law meets information technology, finance, statistics, etc. They are not afraid of numbers, codes and formulas.

Change is about to happen. Civil and criminal procedure will become less complicated, IT-compliant, user-friendly, faster and cheaper. Paper-based lawyers will gradually be faced out by these high techies. Judicial cartels that make huge amounts of money through procurement of paper, pencils, rubbers, pushing papers, lost files and the like must upgrade too. They may need to survive by creating viruses and then sell their respective antiviruses.

Blockchain technology, big data, the internet of things, data harvesting, smart-contracts, digital twins (which consists basically in simulating reality before it happens) and a myriad of algorithms will reshape the real estate business, conveyancing, mergers and acquisitions, financial services law and even civil and criminal liability.

The shadows will become 3D

Every virtue has a corresponding vice; every light has a shadow. In the old days, viruses were a medical problem. If anyone said “I have a virus in my machine” people would laugh at him or her. Today, viruses are also an IT problem and a legal problem too.

These viruses so far affect software, but the development of the 3D printers will make viruses as real as the medical ones. And 3D printers will affect hardware and life. They could produce drugs, weapons and much more. We will need to revise torts and law principles to deal with the virtual world. We will need 3D lawyers.

Law firms will have to redefine themselves. Lawyers will have to change the way they invoice their clients, charge fees, make money and structure their law firms. Partners in new generation law firms will no longer be just lawyers, but there will also be IT specialists, designers, engineers and finance gurus.

Advisory teams will need to be composed of combined experts who understand the law and the IT world, and even better if both skills are found in the same person. Law schools will also need to adapt to this new reality and the regulators like CLE will need to be ahead of the game.

Regulating the past is not the way forward

Regulators never foresee the future. They are usually chasing change from behind and sweating to regulate the unregulated. Perhaps, the time has come to change the dynamics and ask the regulators to encourage and drive change. It should not happen to law practice what has happened to Western Union, banks and taxi drivers.

Western Union and banks were caught by surprise. M-Pesa is easier, faster and cheaper. Taxi drivers too were caught unawares by Uber and when they came to face reality it was too late. They eventually had to join Uber; and the more daring ones also joined Taxify, Little Cabs, etc. Airtime-selling kiosks have also practically disappeared.

Lawyers will not disappear; social relations and conflict will always exist, but law adjudication, practice and learning will change.

The challenges ahead are fascinating. Most lawyers listened in awe and trepidation. They had never pictured themselves looking at anything but law. The speech was over. It is clear that the road ahead is “unclear”, and only innovators and lateral thinkers will be ahead of the pack.

Prof Luis Franceschi
Founding Dean – Strathmore Law School
[email protected]