What lies ahead for law?

This is an image of UQ's School of Law.

It's a VUCA world – volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous – and the legal profession is not exempt.

VUCA, a US military term to characterise the physical and political landscapes of modern war zones, has been adopted by the business world to describe the risks that can rock future stability.

We ask three members of UQ’s law community about the future of their profession: how will law graduates own the unknown?

The responses of Academic Dean and Head of UQ School of Law Professor Patrick Parkinson, alumnus Milan Gandhi, and third-year student Linden Peacock reveal three strong themes: the impact of technology, the necessary non-legal skills and attributes, and the value of learning differently.

Like other industry sectors, law firms are embracing technologies that offer efficiency while resisting others that challenge the business model. The ‘business of lawyering’ is changing.

“We have to recognise that the old traditional jobs in law are going to be fewer and fewer,” Parkinson said.

“Clients are no longer prepared to tolerate enormous legal bills, particularly in litigation matters. And where there are technological solutions and cheap alternatives, they are going to want to go for them.

“The legal profession has to respond to the demands of the market.”

Gandhi agrees that some technologies don’t blend with the time-charging model.

“A lot of that black and white work – those 'if X then Y' type questions – can be automated. If you don’t have your junior lawyers working on a task like document review, because a tech tool wraps it up quickly, then you’re not necessarily making the money you would have by charging for that human time” he said.

“I’m interested in how far we take that in terms of the tools assisting or replacing human decision-making, and the ethical ramifications. Questions with grey areas that require a level of discretion are now being automated. We’re now talking about the deeper potential of artificial intelligence.”

Parkinson plans to continue exploring the impacts of transformational digital disruption, like blockchain beyond cryptocurrency and IoT (the Internet of Things), to reinforce research-led teaching and create new courses.

“At UQ, we already have people who are engaged in the law and technology space thinking about the issues that are going to challenge tomorrow’s lawyers.

“Lawyers need to see and anticipate where the problems are, to have better regulation and avoid risk. So it’s about thinking critically and not engaging naively in some whiz-bang technological solution.”

Parkinson, Gandhi and Peacock believe problem-solving capability is just as essential as understanding fundamental legal principles. Communication range and attributes like empathy are also desirable.

“I think it’s important to have members of the legal profession who are critical thinkers, who can communicate with people across diverse cultural backgrounds – people who are flexible and adaptable and resilient,” says Peacock, who sees the many options that UQ offers to develop such skills in real-world settings as central to her career prospects.

“Students are undertaking the opportunities available to them to increase their employability, like working with the Pro Bono Centre. Once you’re more aware of the issues present in the legal profession and broader society, you can feel empowered with the skills and knowledge needed to address them."

Gandhi has co-created one such opportunity with the annual Disrupting Law event, at which students from different faculties are partnered with mentor law firms to discover the next best ideas for advancing legal practice in novel ways.

“It’s about dealing with uncertainty. Being able to respond to a blank canvas instead of colouring by numbers. Being able to identify a compelling problem and an implementable solution,” Gandhi said.

“A lot of mundane tasks will go. But what will remain will be those that require a level of discretion, lateral thinking and social intelligence. I suggest law schools deepen their focus on these skills and lessen their focus on rote learning.”

Parkinson said no law school should take more students than it can teach well.

“Investing in quality education and smaller classes allows students to engage with teachers and with each other, and these aspects make the law-school experience a really good one.”

He would like to see more collaboration between law schools and the profession to address the mismatch between what it needs now and what tomorrow’s VUCA world will require, to benefit undergraduate students and seasoned practitioners, and everyone else working in or affected by the profession.

He also wants more students to enrol in dual degrees, not just to gain complementary and transferrable skills but to “be interesting people and be interested in the world around you”.

It’s a mindset that Peacock has already adopted.

“I think there will be jobs in the future in the legal profession that we have not imagined or haven’t come into existence. I can’t tell you what they will be. Even if I don’t end up in a strictly law-related job, I do think that my law degree will serve me really well.” 

Captions: Academic Dean and Head of UQ School of Law Professor Patrick Parkinson (first image), National Director of The Legal Forecast and Innovation Ambassador at McCullough Robertson Milan Gandhi (second image), and third-year Bachelor of Arts/Bachelor of Laws student Linden Peacock (third image). Images by Alex Lui

Main image by Sam Scoufos/Compadre Picture Co.

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