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The Legal Skills of the Augmented Legal Practitioner

With the dawn of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and its associated technologies and job market changes, the question arises whether the changes and advancements brought on by the Fourth Industrial Revolution does not necessitate an amendment and/or realignment of the skills, techniques and thinking processes deemed necessary of law graduates and which are taught during the years of legal study.

Are law graduates suitability skilled to applyand practice the law of tomorrow?

Looking at the curriculum of the general Bachelor of Law qualification (the LLB) and considering the learning outcomes to be achieved upon completion of the 4 year programme, it is apparent that upon the competition of the LLB degree, law graduates are expected to have a clear understanding of, and ability to analyse legal and related concepts, principles and theories, to have acquired an understanding and ability to apply relevant techniques and strategies in legal research and problem solving. The graduate is further deemed to have the skills necessary to effectively collect, organise, analyse and critically evaluate information and evidence from a legal perspective and then to communicate these findings successfully in a legal environment by means of written persuasive methods and sustained discourse. It is accepted that the graduate has the ability to solve complex and varying legal problems, not only logically but also creatively, critically, ethically and innovatively, working effectively with colleagues and other role players in the legal process. The graduate is also believed to have acquired sufficient computer literacy skills to effectively communicate, retrieve and process relevant data in a legal environment and to have the skills necessary to manage and organise professional activities in the legal field responsibly and effectively, while being able to participate as a responsible citizen in the promotion of a just society and a democratic and constitutional state under the rule of law. Ultimately with all of these skills and abilities merging in the ability to solve problems responsibly and creatively in a given legal and social context. (South Africa Qualifications Authorit , 2019)

South Africa’s Legal Practice Act, 2014 governs, amongst other things , the enrolment and admission of legal practitioners (South African Government , 2019) and requires candidates to complete a set period of practical hours, usually completed in two years of articles, similar to a intership, with the associated, sterotypical minimal income and thereafter write and succesfully pass the bar examinations. The examinations serve to test whether a graduate is suitability qualified in knowledge and practice to enter the legal industry and provide legal advice and services to clients.

In terms of Section 26(1)(d) of the Legal Practice Act and Rules 21.1 and 21.2, (Law Society of South Africa, 2019) the four papers are comprised as follows: Paper one, which tests a graduates knowledge of the practice and procedure in the courts as well as the practices and procedures relating to motor vehicle accident claims and criminal procedures. Paper two, determines a graduates ability to windup and distribute the estate of a deceased person and the extent to which the graduate knows and understands the policies, practices and procedure followed in this reagrd. Paper Three concerns the practice, function, duties and ethical obligations of a legal practitioner, despite mainly testing drafting skills and the last admission paper, Paper four, concerns basic booking keeping and accounting skills to detemine if the graduate can sufficiently deal with payments by and on behalf of a clients and the costs associated with a legal practice.

To prepare law graduates for the exams and ultimately for entering the legal practice field, 6 weeks of practical vocational training is provided to students, comprising of lecture style classes with an expert in the field of the four areas of law that are ultimatley tested in the examinations, that is - court procedures, wills and estates, ethics and bookkeeping. (Law Society of South Africa , 2019)

The World Economic Forum has recently published a report on the future of work titled “The Future of Jobs Report 2018”.

The report makes it clear that bold leadership and entrepreneurial spirit will be required to grasp and apply the potential and actual benefits provided by new technologies, such as automation and algorithms, brought on by the Fourth Industrial Revolution which will ultimately lead to higher-quality jobs and substantial increases in the productivity of the existing work of employees. (World Economic Forum , 2018) Although the Fourth Industrial Revolution will no doubt decrease the demand for certain basic skills, it is believed that the demand for new skills and new job roles such as app development and/or drone piloting, will offset the decrease in demand for the outdated, routine skills which will eventually be automated. (World Economic Forum , 2018)

Based on the research undertaken by the World Economic Forum, the changes brought on by the evolution of technology and its increasing use in the job market has significantly altered the skills demanded in the job market over the years, as summarized in the table below:

With the above in mind, it is clearly evident that the current curriculum of the LLB Degree and the post-qualification, vocational training required to be completed by law graduates, encourages and builds vital legal skills such as analytical thinking, complex problem-solving and reasoning, no doubt of significant importance to legal practitioners in resolving their client’s legal questions, problems and disputes.

However, it fails to acknowledge current advances that have been made in machine learning and the realistic possibility of machines and associated AI performing analytical and problem solving tasks, which have previously almost exclusively been characteristic of the work and tasks performed by legal practitioners. Given the advances that have to date been made in machine learning and that are continually being made daily, analytical thinking, complex problem-solving and reasoning will in all possibility be performed by AI, machines and algorithms in the not so distant future.

The possibility of machines, AI and algorithms acquiring the skills and techniques to undertake logical and critical thinking, problem-solving and reasoning, characteristic of the work and skills performed by legal practitioners was recently demonstrated by AlphaGo Zero. (Silver, et al., 2017) AlphaGo Zero, Deep mind’s AI machine, through reinforcement learning, its neural network and a search algorithm, taught itself to play GO better than any other player, providing new knowledge, strategies and moves that have not previously be documented nor carried out by another GO player, based on only the basic principles of GO with which it was programmed. The ability of AlphaGo Zero to teach itself strategic moves and positioning not learnt from a human GO playing counterpart, illustrates the possibility of AI, machines and algorithms teaching itself the skills and techniques previously deemed exclusively vested in humans and taught to legal practitioners and law graduates alike in solving legal problems.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution, while significantly changing existing job markets, eliminating the demand for certain skills and abilities, simultaneously creates a demand for the upskilling, reskilling and re-alignment of job skills. In the legal context and given the existing legal qualification and training required by law graduates, the LLB degree and vocational training should be modernized to provide for the lawyer of the future, the so called augmented lawyer. The Augmented Lawyer, as baptized by Kevin Oliver (Head of Advance Delivery (Tech) at Allen & Overy) at the recently held Legal Innovation and Tech Fest in Johannesburg, Sandton, will continue to practice law and provide legal services and advice to clients, however will change the means and manner of doing same, by utilising technology, AI and available Legal tech to increase the efficiency of legal service delivery to provide effective, efficient and reasonably priced legal advice and services .

Thus universities, law societies and its related vocational training institutions should not only provide the theoretical basis for the interpretation, application and practice of law in general, fostering techniques and skills of analytical thinking, critical problem solving and reasoning, however should additionally provide and encourage the teaching, development and nurturing of humanity skills including, but not limited too, creativity, originality , initiative, leadership , social influence, resilience, stress tolerance , flexibility and emotional intelligence. The merging of the legal and humanities field should not be done in isolation but should utilise modules and study materials from other disciplines such as design thinking, systems thinking, futures studies, engineering and computing to provide for a diverse, future skilled augmented legal practitioner to effectively apply and practice the law of the future.

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About the Author

Kristi Erasmus – Bcom (Law) [University of Johannesburg] LLB LLM (Company Law) [ Stellenbosch University] – admitted attorney, futurist in the making and Academic Director of the Futures Law Faculty, a branch of the accredited Institute of Legal Practice Development and Research, offering specially curated Masterclasses and Workshops, equipping professionals with the tools and techniques of thinking and preparing for the future of tomorrow.

Kristi engages in substantial research concerning the possibilities of the future of law and how same may be impacted by technology and AI. She has particular interest in Legal Tech and Legal Software and how it affects the practice of law.