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‘Decent work’ and legal tech — symbiotic or mutually incompatible?

In the legal market, what are the skills those entering the professions will need and how does legal tech impact on the day to day work of a lawyer?

The UN’s global sustainable development goals have become a hot topic of conversation amongst many organisations. Goal 8 requires the promotion of ‘sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all’ and this is often required to be evidenced through a supply chain and procurement. In the legal profession, this is set against a backdrop of discussions about the skills those entering the professions will need, be they ‘T’ or ‘O’ shaped, and how legal tech impacts on the day to day work of a lawyer. Little has been written on the impact of legal tech on goal 8 — can lawyers say that legal tech helps ensure ‘decent work’?

It is clear that legal tech can help with target 8.2 of the UN’s goals, hoping to realise enhanced economic productivity through technological upgrades and innovation, but what about the rest of the ‘decent work’ bit? The concept of ‘decent work’ is often framed around productive activities, enhanced productivity and decent job creation. So far, so good on the legal tech front — a whole industry has spawned and new companies and roles created precisely to try and help lawyers be more productive by leveraging process change and new technologies. From the legal tech side, the concept of ‘decent work’ seems to be satisfied.

What if we flip it to the lawyers using this legal tech — are they feeling that they have been able to do more productive activities or have enhanced productivity? Is legal tech helping them with ‘decent work’? I suspect that this largely depends where any given lawyer sits on the technological fence that ranges from the extremes of ‘I loved my Dictaphone, I magically got my work back and never touched a computer’ to ‘heck yes, bring on automation, NLP and I talk random forests over breakfast’. The truth is likely to be somewhere in the middle — many lawyers will see the potential benefits that legal tech can bring, but may not have the time to stop the day job for long enough to explore them and truly embrace them. This is where innovation teams can help, doing a lot of the trial and error and filtering of technology and ideas in the background to present to lawyers a less raw solution, tailored to a use case or language that resonates with them.

The possibility for legal tech to assist lawyers with repeatable or more mundane tasks such as information extraction or document review is large and is likely to have an impact on perceptions around ‘decent work’. Used as an augmentation tool, legal tech is likely to free up the time of a lawyer on what may be perceived as humdrum tasks and help with the productivity of those tasks. If this freed up time is then spent on tasks which require legal input or with client contact, this is likely to be perceived by lawyers as ‘decent work’, enabling them to do the things they were trained for and love. Legal tech and ‘decent work’ look to become ever more symbiotic, ensuring law firms and those that are procuring their services can be well on the way to meeting goal 8.

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