Winning essay of the 2021-2022 law undergraduate essay competition of the International Law Book Facility
University of Bristol, Bristol
Looking back from 2030, what should we do now to transform the legal profession, including by the use of machine learning technology to ensure access to justice for all, and that the profession is as diverse as the communities and businesses it serves?
Moore’s Law dictates that the speed and capability of our computers double every two years, which means that by 2030 we can expect computing power to be 16 times greater than it is today. To put it simply, technology will undergo profound change in the next eight years. In three ways, the legal profession must be transformed if it is to strengthen access to justice and diversity in the shadow of modern technology. Firstly, while machine learning presents innumerable opportunities for the profession, it potentially poses grave dangers for humanity: the legal profession should ensure that the necessary safeguards are established. Secondly, the benefits posed by blockchain technology will radically improve access to justice; and finally, the benefits of technology in the legal profession are contingent upon achieving greater cognitive diversity.
Protecting humanity from machine learning
The legal profession must place itself at the centre of the creation of machine learning (ML) regulation to safeguard humanity’s interests. There exist numerous benefits from ML in the short term for the legal profession, such as automation of routine tasks and increased prediction accuracy. However, there is more scope for the legal profession to fundamentally influence the longer-term effects of ML.
An important concept in the field of ML is artificial general intelligence (AGI), which is the hypothetical ability of ML technology to learn any intellectual task capable of being performed by a human. AGI has potentially exceptional consequences for the legal profession, in that it may simply ‘solve’ the problems of lack of access to justice and diversity owing to its superintelligence. However, coupled with the potential to solve problems is the inherent theoretical risk that ML with superhuman intelligence could lead to the destruction of humanity: as John von Neumann, regarded by many as the most intelligent man in history, said, ‘the combination of physics and politics could render the surface of the earth uninhabitable’.1 The alignment problem, then, asks how we can guarantee that ML is aligned with humanity’s interests to avoid this situation.
Research is urgently needed on devising global norms, policies, and institutions to ensure the beneficial development and use of advanced AI, and it seems natural for the legal profession to shape the regulatory landscape in a manner which encourages safety and enterprise simultaneously. Without the legal profession helping to solve the alignment problem, there may be no such profession in the future, let alone access to justice and diversity.
Increasing access to justice through blockchain
The legal profession must embrace the benefits of blockchain technology and its potential to increase access to justice in the next eight years. The prime contribution of blockchain to the legal industry will be through the medium of smart contracts, which are self-executing contracts able to automatically execute clauses without directly involving lawyers.
Theoretically removing the necessity for lawyers to draft and enforce contracts creates a form of decentralised justice, where a consumer need not rely on lawyers to write their contract nor the courts to enforce it, radically expanding access to justice by reducing transaction costs.2 However, the legal profession should advise and lobby for the creation of a law which confirms that all UK smart contracts must comply with UK contract law principles, ensuring consistency and the protection of rights. The second legal use of blockchain is litigious, as it can be used to authenticate submitted evidence online. Any data stored in the blockchain is immutable, thus users are alerted to the tiniest changes. Only 46 per cent of the population enjoy access to justice yet 59 per cent have access to the internet,3 thus the online authentication of evidence via blockchain can leverage internet use to benefit those without access to justice. As a result, blockchain is an excellent mechanism for victims to preserve evidence of e-business disputes or copyright infringements on the internet, allowing the evidence preserved by blockchain to be given judicial effect. The legal profession, specifically the judiciary, must therefore encourage the use of blockchain evidence authentication during litigation.
Achieving cognitive diversity
Finally, the legal profession must achieve greater cognitive diversity. In 2019, approximately 57 per cent of trainee solicitors in the United Kingdom had studied a law degree.4 That such a high proportion of a single profession was dominated by a single course demonstrates a patent lack of cognitive diversity. The modern lawyer, however, must combine an appreciation and understanding of fields such as technology, computation and physics to apply the benefits offered by innovation as outlined in previous paragraphs. Therefore, to fully grasp the opportunity offered by technology, the legal profession must upskill in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects. It is important to note that recruiting for the ‘traditional’ and ‘STEM’ lawyer is not mutually exclusive: Clifford Chance offers two concurrent training contracts, with one offering regular training and the other, ‘IGNITE’, recruiting those ‘with an aptitude for tech’ and places an ‘emphasis on tech’ during training.5 The profession may also consider offering increased salary to STEM lawyers, recognising their lower supply in the industry and providing a stronger incentive to consider STEM as a route into the profession. As ‘legal tech’ becomes mainstream, the judiciary may also consider introducing a requirement in technology-related cases for each bench to include a judge with STEM credentials. This will provide the legal profession with the essential skillset to take it into 2030 and beyond.
To conclude, it is clear that the legal profession will undergo profound changes after 2030, and likely well before. It must lay the foundation of norms to control the development of ML, allowing its beneficial development while safeguarding humanity from its risks. Embracing blockchain technology will also increase access to justice and allow a democratisation of legal services where lawyers are unessential for an individual’s understanding of their legal rights. Finally, greater cognitive diversity is essential for the benefits of technology to be realised in the legal profession, and this could take the form of alternative training contracts as well as increased focus on recruiting STEM graduates.
1. Giorgio Israel, Ana Millan Gasca, The World as a Mathematical Game (2009th edition, Birkhäuser 2009) 78
2. Michal Malkovský, ‘The Concept of Smart Contracts: Capable of Overturning Contract Law As We Know It?’ (2015), see www.academia.edu/19842066/TheConceptofSmartContractsCapableofOverturningContractLawAsWeKnowIt, accessed 20 February 2022
3. International Law Book Facility (ILBF), ‘ILBF 15th anniversary event, Professor Richard Susskind OBE’ (Youtube, 13 December 2021), 26:25, see www.youtube.com/watch?v=VNfsrEJ1j1k&list=WL&index=2, accessed 20 February 2022
4. Chambers Student, ‘Law firms’ preferred universities 2019’ (Chambers Student, 5 July 2019), www.chambersstudent.co.uk/where-to-start/newsletter/law-firms-preferred-universities-2019, accessed 20 February 2022
5. Clifford Chance Careers, ‘Tech-focused Training Contracts for people who want to shape the future of law’ (Clifford Chance, 25 November 2021), see https://careers.cliffordchance.com/london/what-we-offer/ignite.html, accessed 20 February 2022