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Robot lawyers, machine morality and a universe of data: Simpson Grierson and the evolution of law

We know that technology is ever-changing. But so too is a profession many of us still see as old-fashioned: law. At the forefront of that evolution is Aotearoa’s own Simpson Grierson.

We all know the scenario: you’re in court, and a couple of lawyers are engaged in a verbal duel before a judge and a jury of peers. But this may be a bit different: instead of a wig, the judge is plugged into a wall, and instead of a real gavel there’s a picture of one on a screen.

Sounds like something out of an Isaac Asimov pulp novel, right? But it could happen within our lifetimes, should the “singularity” – the moment when a machine truly becomes self-aware – occur.

And that could pose a lot of legal problems, explain the folks at Simpson Grierson. One of Aotearoa’s largest law firms, the emergence of new technologies – and what the future might have in store – is something the firm is keenly aware of, says partner Richard Watts – particularly as it relates to serving clients. “Those who have tech issues don’t always know they have tech issues.”

Partner Simon Vannini says the emergence of AI will also create regulatory issues that the government and businesses will have to navigate. “I think the biggest challenge we’re facing as a country is, ‘how do we regulate for new technologies like artificial intelligence?’”

An example of regulation, he says, includes rules about how autonomous vehicles should operate. But there’s far more to it than just that, he says – like robots or computer programmes and money. “Should there be rules for how financial advice is given by bots?”

Watts says part of the issue with regulation has to do with a fundamental distrust humans have of machines, whether we’d like to admit it or not. “There will always be a reticence for machines to make judgments.”

That reticence, he says, has meant that law has typically been behind the pace of innovation and technological advancements. Senior associate Louise Taylor explains that that’s something law firms need to be aware of – and to make up for that. “Law is always unable to keep up with emerging technology, because technology is always going to emerge faster,” she says. “We need to totally rethink what we’re training our [law] students for.”

The “lawyer of the future” will need strong IT skills as well as an understanding of law, Watts says. And while that may mean even more schooling for a profession that’s already famed for the sheer amount of studying involved, the benefits are more than worth the drawbacks, he says. And, Watts adds, it’s a benefit we’re already seeing thanks to things like computer programmes that can automatically search for information far faster than any human ever could – and far more comprehensively, too. “There’s no question where machine learning has reached the point where it’s capable of allowing us to have access to essentially all the legal information in the world.”

The takeaway so far here: technology is changing the law – or at least forcing the law to change, as well as changing the role of a lawyer and a law firm. But one thing that hasn’t changed for Simpson Grierson, Vannini says, is what he considers the most important skill a lawyer can have: understanding a client and their needs. “It remains just as important as ever to be close to our clients,” he says. “This is about saying to our clients, ‘hey, what are the issues?’ We need to be out there exploring the issues ourselves.”

Whether it’s data storage and loss (or even what type of data can be collected), AI, “machine morality” or more, Vannini says the law profession will still be as essential as ever, even if it does shift further from “putting out fires” to proverbially helping clients fireproof their home.

Taylor sums it up well. “We’re going to see some hugely exciting developments over the next few years.”

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