Is it a new age for lawyers?

1943

BY SHADRACK MUYESU

Considering the industries it sustains, isn’t it time information was considered a factor of production on its own?

Take the law for instance. For many years, lawyers preyed on the ignorance of the layperson that was not able to access the information they needed because it exited in complex jargon only lawyers could interpret. A lawyer in his robe was a marvel. He was literally a depository of knowledge whose wisdom was necessary for completing the simplest of transactions and determining the smallest dispute. To amplify Lord Justice Denning, they were the law.

Beyond determining the law, they also interpreted and applied it.  In doing so, they created employment opportunities for themselves in most industries allowing themselves control never mind that half of them, in reality, did not require their expertise. They made money and attracted power. And while they controlled everyone else, by retaining control of their own unions, they perpetuated their domination.

Internet, the Godsend

Then the Internet came. With every increase in connectivity and every advance in Information and Communication Technology, they lost their prized asset (information) to everyone else. With a Smartphone, anyone could now freely access the advice advocates would otherwise charge for. Initially, lawyers welcomed this as a Godsend. In fact, many still do, perhaps in denial of the disruption the Internet has caused in the profession.

Among others, developments in ICT meant that lawyers could now court clients without breaking the law. For instance, to sidestep rules against advertising, many advocates started sending complementary cards to prospective clients. The ability to customize emails also created an opportunity for advocates to inadvertently advertise their products and expertise.  Most importantly, social media redefined the old habit of ambulance chasing by allowing advocates to search for clients and court them behind the safety of a screen. As far as good practice goes, the Internet multiplied research capabilities allowing advocates to better represent their clients.

“You can see it for yourself; cases are now electronically available to all. The cause list as well, meaning that research is no longer the boring, tedious and costly exercise it once was. Soon process servers will be replaced with the growing prominence of electronic service and the looming debut of electronic filing of pleadings. Technology has also seen the pilot recording of pleadings; courts are also soon moving into Skype proceedings. This is all in keeping with the IT and the dictates of the digital age,” summarizes Mr John Chigiti, an advocate of the High Court and a Lecturer at the Kenya School of Law, adding that “Even before criticism,” he urges, “you need to appreciate the strides the Kenyan justice system has taken over the years…all with credit to technology.”

But there was a problem. The developments also meant that the layperson no longer had to ask what the law on a certain matter was. All he had to do was research then seek the services of an advocate in applying what he already knew. Technology ushered in a new age of rights where copies of the Constitution and legislation were readily available on the web: Case law too. And with the deliberate shift towards simplicity in legal drafting, the layman could easily pinpoint the law or at least make an informed attempt. In a blink, legal service was reduced to handling very complex briefs and/or representing clients in court…and only because many weren’t as dedicated or brave enough as to invoke a right the law grants them to self-representation.

According to Crispine Odhiambo, managing partner at Kiptinness and Odhiambo Associates (KO Associates), a commercial law expert and a lecturer at the Kenya school of law, to curve a niche for themselves, the next generation of advocates will require a deep knowledgeable in specific areas. In commercial practice for instance, advocates will be required to go beyond executing clients’ orders to anticipate problems and offer expert advice on market trends. The success of an advocate won’t merely be pegged on successful execution. He/she will need to be a sorcerer.

But what is most illuminating is how often Artificial Intelligence popped up in our conversation.

“It will change everything”

Talk to Books, the App

Actually bring down Mr. Lawyer from his lofty perch? For Clinton Obura, an IT expert attached to Google Headquarters in Dublin, far from rendering anybody useless, AI will only augment and assist in the mundane no value add tasks.

“Google recently launched “Talk to Books” which is a proof of concept on the power of Artificial Intelligence. Type a question into “Talk to Books,” and an AI-powered tool will scan every sentence in 100,000 volumes in Google Books and generate a list of likely responses with the pertinent passage bolded. The best part is that you ask these questions as you would ask naturally to a human being, a concept in Computing called Natural Language Processing.

You could ask anything… Is there a God? How did you meet your significant other? Would you advise young people to pursue a career as a musician? Now think about all the research that lawyers do in their day to day. What if they could ask those questions to an AI bot which has indexed all the legal opinions since time immemorial as well as legal books? A huge amount of the law is practiced based on precedent and technology can help with this.

So now all you have to do is sit behind your PC and ask when was the last time that Justice Odunga sentenced somebody to life imprisonment? How many robbery with violence suspects have been sentenced to more than five years imprisonment in the last ten years? How many custody cases have ruled in the favor of men since 2004? The use-cases could be limitless. Am I over-reaching here?”

Felix Atandi, a Digital Forensics expert based in London, explains further.

“It may seem rudimentary for now but you cannot quite fathom the possibilities of these techs going forward.  By using Natural Language Processing (NLP) to naturally communicate with a computer and Machine Learning to incrementally teach an Artificially Intelligent device is genius. Don’t look at it like using Google Search where data is retrieved statically from indexed files but an experience beyond that. Think about when doing research or literature review on Jurisprudence/Case Law. Think of integrating voice command, augmented reality, neural networks, robotics and even google deepmind.

Think of it as a real-time assistant and not a threat.”

I tried out the application and while I was impressed, it was glaring that the lawyer remains invaluable, at least for now, according to Mr. Atandi. While there is concrete advice on law and procedure, it exists in legal jargon a layman would find difficult to understand. In any case, application of the newfound knowledge will require a lawyer.

Miss June Okal, A young lawyer at Kiptiness and Odhiambo and an ICT Law enthusiast also tried it.

“Initially I thought that there’s no way AI would be able to translate a client’s issue to a Legal question and aptly answer it. I tried the App. I asked what I should do if someone assaulted me and it advised me to call an ambulance, report to the police, etc. On how I could file a suit, the Application informed me that the suit is instituted by way of a plaint accompanied by an affidavit sworn by the plaintiff as to the veracity of the averments made in the plaint. After service of the plaint, the defendant will be required to enter an appearance and so on.
I am slowly getting converted. The challenge will be translating fundamental legal principles to coherent advice to clients. I don’t know, let’s wait and see”

Blockchain

In spite of their reassurances, and as Mr Crispine Odhiambo pointed out earlier on, there is enough cause for worry. Take Blockchain technology for instance. Blockchain is a system of computerized ledgers, which are secured using cryptography. It creates a permanent record of every transaction that can be viewed by all – just as a document saved on email. With blockchains however, not only will the document exist in the records of those you send it to but also in the records of those they send it to and so on creating a history of transactions. Every time the document is received, it will come with a history of all those it has been sent to, who have received it and used it in whatever manner, creating an online paper trail.  This new technology will redefine contracting, Intellectual Property, Conveyancing, bookkeeping and much more.

With blockchains, contracts will be created and executed directly between the relevant parties, with no lawyer or less lawyer involvement depending on the “heaviness” of the contract in a new age of smart contracting.

Artists and musicians attempt to protect their work, but too often it gets used without their permission, and royalties do not get paid from audio streaming services that struggle with profitability. In the near future, artistes will now be able to track the use of their property thanks to blockchain. As the source of the property, an artiste will be able to monitor its use.

The same goes for asset transfer. Advocates will no longer be required to conduct due diligence on a property. At the touch of a button, the entire history of that property will open for everyone interested to see.

With regard to bookkeeping, companies are already developing closed blockchains, which only they can use. Hyperledgers are a great example. The great implication of all this is that more than 40% of an advocate’s business in offering answers to questions and executing procedure will be lost to technology. The lawyer who survives is the one that evolves as Mr Odhiambo explained. The idea of an advocate who is an expert in everything is no longer feasible. To survive you have to better the machine, and that means specialization.