By Eimear McCann.
A famous quote from HG Wells always strikes me as an adept articulation of both solace and pragmatism, “Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race.”
Within the simplicity of this sentence lies a complexity of social and cultural change that belongs as much to our present as our past and is even more impactful as a result. On the surface, the “simple” bicycle was a mode of transport that suddenly opened up the world to an unprecedented liberation.
Making its debut early in the 19th century, mass production followed in the late 1800s, diminishing prices and increasing accessibility. Suddenly, the freedom to travel further was no longer the domain of the wealthy, but one also to be enjoyed by the working classes. An emancipator for women, the humble bicycle represented a means of autonomy and liberty.
The inevitable ripple effect was a widening of gene pools; by facilitating travel beyond local communities, the number of potential marriage partners dramatically increased. The subsequent impact on the field of genetics was huge. Steve Jones, a leading UK geneticist, described the invention of the bicycle as the most important event in recent human evolution.
For most of us, this is not something we really think about when we hop on a bike. We tend to live very much in our time, with varying levels of myopia that are, in a sense, necessary for our day-to-day survival. We generally tend to select products based on their functionality, ease of use and cost. There are exceptions of course, but on a very fundamental level, the holistic view of decision-making is an exercise in retrospection rather than vision, or with much thought as to wider impact.
One such exception may well be tech. There is a palpable awareness that we are currently living through a complete digital revolution. Whilst biological human evolution has, in essence, come to a halt, the tech revolution is only really getting started.
Technology, in all its ubiquity, has forever changed how we think, how we behave and has imprinted our daily routines with a sense of urgency, pushing us always closer to full immersion. The wider social and cultural implications are constantly debated, although action, particularly for social media platforms, fails to mirror the resolve of our subliminal, and collective, manifestos.
Beyond that, our relationship with technology is a complex one; both in practice and on a philosophical level. Taking a very blatant example; the correlation between technology and loneliness is well documented, and yet conversely, it was tech that enabled connection during a world that had involuntarily turned inward. Tech is blamed for our short attention spans and our distractibility, but it is the same technology that facilitates learning and innovation. A dichotomy perhaps, but this is all still novel, and we must learn how and where it slots into our overall evolution.
As we witness our world changing, far more rapidly that our cognitive constraints may genetically permit, we are therefore both user and historian in tandem. This symbiosis offers us an opportunity to reframe innovation in motion, to reflect and transform simultaneously.
Looking at this in a legal framework, we are a “species” undergoing a radical transformation. Ultimately, whether technophobe or technophile, we are united in a movement that is both a tangible recalibration and a reminder that metamorphosis is a simple inevitability.
The tribulations of our user/historian navigation are well documented, from the obvious (“you’re on mute”) to the more nuanced (impact on cognitive processing), and yet the transformation is still running in real time, as we run with it, and the positives of progress fall underfoot.
What if we take advantage of this unique duality, and reframe the challenge of change as an opportunity to upskill? What if we look at the pain points so far through a lens of lessons learned? Haven’t we seen lawyers not only adapt, but in fact embrace remote and flexible ways of working, with an agility and openness which is unprecedented?
The assumption that future (and current) lawyers need to learn to code is finally dissipating but there is still an anxiety about being more than just technically competent, which I believe is misplaced. Of course, understanding how tech can automate and expedite workflows is crucial, but arguably, the more we digitise legal processes, the greater the need for softer skills – far too many to explore in this piece.
If we take the skill of effective communication as just one example, the how and when are now as important as the substance and motivation. Omnichannel is the norm for most of us, with an overwhelm of platforms all huddled together on one device. Choosing which method of communication as the most appropriate stretches way beyond functionality or aesthetics, forming part of a wider picture encompassing risk and compliance.
The concept of “lost in translation” has never been more apt; with less time together physically, we lose out on learning by osmosis and the creativity that flows more naturally during in-person interaction; but surely, as a collective, we are already finding new ways of facilitating learning or fostering creativity?
As disjointed and discombobulated as we were in the embryonic lockdown days, we have since evolved. Whilst much is debated about the cognitive overload of back-to-back Zoom calls, there is less discussion about opportunities to rethink our communication skills. As our modern version of “normality” resumes, should we be seizing this as a wider opportunity to rethink communication overall?
If we pause, as historians in situ, and reflect on how effectively we communicate right now, I wonder how we would rate ourselves. How much do we convey in our written and verbal interactions, and do we convey what we want to? How much of a role should, or could, visuals have in the world of legal? How can we upskill to ensure that we don’t become overshadowed during a virtual meeting, or how can a lawyer advocate more effectively in a remote setting? We have lots to learn, and we have the tools to bolster the learning.
Cross-pollination is the norm in many sectors. In legal, the definition is perhaps more diluted. Legal engineers, technologists, data scientists and innovation managers represent industrial transformation, and there can be no doubt that this diversity will continue to disrupt standard ways of working in law, but I think we need to go beyond that. If our future is hybrid, surely, we all need to find more imaginative ways of getting our messages across, rather than propagating a human vs machines narrative. To achieve this, should we be looking towards artists, writers and creatives who think in abundant optimism, or at least, looking completely outside of legal and tech for inspiration?
As we witness our own evolutionary journey, the seemingly immutable hierarchy of the legal profession is already starting to look a little more jaded; external and internal perceptions of lawyers continue to change, and it seems that technology has already exerted its power to democratise knowledge and access within the sector.
Rather than lament the loss of long meetings and longer commutes, perhaps we should focus more on designing the tools that will ultimately shape the sector and our wider society. An ontological decision perhaps, our relationship with technology is fundamental to the future that we wish to have with it. In today’s world, every time you see an adult on an iPhone, I doubt you feel as uplifted as HG Wells, but we are a progressive society, and we can - and should - adapt, and seek out the same freedom and exploration as our predecessors some 200 years ago.
About the Author
A former lawyer, Eimear is Commercial Director at TrialView. TrialView is a cloud-based digital disputes platform, designed for litigation, arbitration and hearings..
She is also a writer and a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Law, Manchester.