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The rise of ‘lawtech’ in UK universities

Is emotional intelligence the answer? Source: Alex Knight/Unsplash

Law has a reputation for stuffy practice and courtroom wigs – which explains why no one is surprised at the relatively snail-like pace the industry is currently adopting technology.

Slow as it may be, legal technology is certainly becoming ‘a thing’ in the UK. Firms are reportedly developing apps to assess whether clients “should or should not go ahead” with a claim, or “robot lawyers” to bring a small claim for up to £19,000 (US$25,000) and using artificial intelligence in recruitment. Slowly but surely, lawtech is changing the legal market.

How is this development impacting how universities deliver their law courses?

For one, there’s been a rise in the number of lawtech courses offered. This includes the University of Limerick, Ulster University and London South Bank University (LSBU), which joined the University of Manchester last year to offer courses that come up “with solutions to real problems”, as described by Alan Russell, Senior Lecturer at LSBU in The Guardian.

In Russell’s class, students are developing an app for people struck out by legal aid cuts to get legal advice on housing. In Senior Lecturer John Haskell’s lawtech class at the University of Manchester, the downsides of lawtech – for example, algorithm bias as its creators are usually white and male – are the focus of student reflection sessions.

Will robots take over the role of junior lawyers? Source: AFP/HO/PRU

The building of such apps fulfils a new trajectory law firms are taking. When it comes to lawtech, these firms have a choice between building their own or buying “off the shelf” from a legal technology company.

The former works for specific problems where a solution can be quickly constructed, Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner’s (BCLP) Director of Innovation Solutions, Nick Pryor revealed at the Secrets to Success (lawtech special edition) event at The University of Law earlier this year. The latter is more complex, and requires the firm to conduct additional testing and integration work before using the third party service.

Central to lawtech courses is critical thinking. Technology is no “magic bullet” to this profession which continues to depend largely on humans. Though students and junior lawyers would no doubt be ecstatic to know there is now software like eDiscovery that goes through hundreds of thousands of documents relevant to a case, leaving lawyers able to focus more on high quality and high-value work.

Students should be aware of these developments in lawtech when choosing a university and lawtech course to enrol in.

“All too often, technology is seen as the answer when we don’t know what the question is,” Catrina Denvir, Senior Lecturer at Monash University told The Guardian. For example, “nearly every chatbot developed to help people with legal problems…seems to be an elaborate marketing tool for an entrepreneur looking for financial backing to do something else”.

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