16 Sep 2018

Law professor John Hopkins on a future without lawyers

From Sunday Morning, 7:47 am on 16 September 2018

The legal profession is facing major disruption because Western legal systems are complex, expensive, and in many cases could be done more easily via technology, law professor John Hopkins says. 

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Photo: Supplied

Prof Hopkins, from University of Canterbury, tells Sunday Morning's Wallace Chapman that Western legal systems are extremely complex but the tasks lawyers are actually doing are often fairly mundane and straightforward. 

"Our system … it’s historically contingent, it’s a historical system which has developed high levels of complexity that might not be relevant to the way that we currently work today." 

Professor John Hopkins

Professor John Hopkins Photo: supplied

He says regular people come into contact with the law on a daily basis without realising the complexity behind it. 

"Famously a couple of years ago the Norwegian consumer council decided to look at the terms and conditions that we sign up to in our apps. 

"They read them, and it took 32 hours and they put it live on the internet, the point being of course that when we sign up to these things we haven’t a clue the thing we’re signing up to ... the idea that ignorance of the law is no excuse simply doesn’t work." 

"In another experiment in the mid-2000s, six people in London sold their first-born children for free internet through signing up to these conditions.

"The problem of complexity isn’t new, it’s just got worse." 

He says this complexity is risky for most people to deal with, which is why lawyers are hired when a lot is at stake. 

"They’re complex and they’re time consuming and they do have possibly an element of risk if you make an error, so therefore you go to a lawyer who can take you through the process, 

"One of the things that a lawyer actually does is when you sell something like a house, something large like a piece of property - you’ll get a lawyer involved and one of the reasons that you get a lawyer involved is to ensure that the risk is taken away from you, the seller, and is put on the lawyer because of the complexity." 

However, despite the complexity many of the tasks lawyers perform are actually quite straightforward. 

"Conveyancing, you could sell a house in a much easier way than we do, the reason we do it the way we do it is because it’s embedded and it delivers the certainty that we require. 

"If you could hide that system within a technological - an app for want of a better word - then you take away the need for the lawyer on a number of these tasks - not everything, but a number of these. 

He says things like blockchain are designed to take away the risks involved with transfers like that. 

"The key point about blockchain for example is that if it works correctly, it allows the transfer of ownership with very limited or no risk in a way that we don’t do at the present time. 

"Assuming that it works ... it then takes out the need for the lawyer to take you through the process. 

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Photo: 123RF

"These sort of mechanisms are perfect … for software to undertake, and in fact there’s nothing new about this, there’s been software that undertakes relatively mundane but complex legal tasks since the 1990s, some people made a lot of money out of them. 

He says even in more complex cases there’s been technological advances. 

"There are some fascinating examples of software that predicts where tax fraud or the likelihood that tax fraud is about to be undertaken in real time, which is operating in banks at the present time, which actually changes the nature of the whole investigative process anyway."

Such technology is expected to be adopted in a widespread way and there's no reason they shouldn't be, he says. 

"The legal system is expensive and difficult to use and people try and avoid it, therefore there technologies I think have fertile ground." 

He says it's already having an effect on the profession. 

"As a legal academic it worries me because I might not have a job.

"There’s certainly been a degree of panic in some systems - in the United States most noticably where they’ve had a dramatic reduction in law students … I think 30 percent in the last few years - that’s a massive drop. 

"The reason for that is that there’s less demand for lawyers in the United States and their legal education system is entirely focused on training to be a lawyer." 

He says in New Zealand, the legal education system is not as much at risk. 

“At least not in practice, because 50 percent of law students actually go on to other things, but the courses themselves remain remarkably traditional and tied to the idea that you’re going to be a lawyer at the end of the day. 

However, he says law schools should still prepare themselves and their students for a different understanding of legal education.

"I think the law schools that will survive and prosper are those that think about law in a much broader sense, not in terms of the law in the courts … but about the way that what are called the law jobs are done

"So, dispute resolution, making rules - [these things] might be miles away from the courts and the formal process, and training students to think in those sort of terms might be the way you future proof your legal education."