Tech advances are nothing to be frightened of: this is a great time to be a lawyer

I was fortunate enough to get a training contract just as the first dotcom boom was getting underway. I wrote my law degree dissertation about defamation on the internet, which, at the time, was a radical thing. I recall speaking with a partner at a law firm at which I was interviewing, and telling him how the internet was going to revolutionise commerce forever. At best, he seemed bemused at my enthusiasm.

Fast forward 20 years, and it’s clear that I had underestimated the dramatic changes that the combination of ultra-fast media networks, Moore’s law and human ingenuity would bring about. Not only has the internet caused an industrial revolution never seen before in history. It has also changed the world in which we live, enabling incredible technological developments that have, for the most part, delivered valuable benefits to the human race.

The reaction of our profession to this phenomenon is mixed. Some are slow to appreciate the gravity of the shift, and believe that whilst there may be peripheral adaptations that we have to make as lawyers, the practice of law will remain unchanged. Others are leaders and innovators, embracing new technologies and taking advantage of their implementation in their working activities.

As a trainee at the turn of the century, the main benefit of technological development in my working life was to reduce the amount of time I spent in the print room. Most trainees today will never even see a print room, let alone spend hours in the early hours of the morning, collating bundles of documents in the company of other grumpy trainees. Email first enabled faster communication, and then started taking control of legal services, forcing us to respond more quickly to clients than ever before. Document drafting moved from manuscript to on-screen, and amending documents became a much easier process. As a banker friend once said to me, “the track changes functionality in Word must be a miserable invention for you”.

Today, our trainees need to have their eyes fixed firmly on the horizon. Our competition as private practice lawyers comes not from other law firms, but from alternative technology providers and platforms.

In a world where legal services can be delivered to a broadly equivalent standard by the marriage of machines and data, our young lawyers will need to become more expert at identifying the value which they can bring to those that seek legal advice. They will need to be familiar with the use and implementation of outsourced legal products and services, be able to effectively implement the best use of legal service technologies to bring maximum benefit to clients.

They must also learn those special skills which no computer, software or database can emulate, and which can bring disproportionate benefits to clients; counselling and advisory skills, advocacy, negotiation and judgement. More than ever, young lawyers will be expected, as a given, to be able to adapt and use technologies to deliver the best client service, including (in some cases) by allowing a machine to do the job for them.

To be successful, modern lawyers are having to identify those particular benefits that they can deliver and which can set them apart as independent and talented advisers. This is nothing to be frightened about. It’s a great time to be a lawyer.

Gregor Pryor is a partner and co-chair of the entertainment and media group at Reed Smith