Special guest interview: Peter Wright
MM: Congratulations on your recent appointment to the Law Society board.
PW: Thanks Marc. I’m very pleased to be appointed onto the Board.
The Board is supported by two individual committees with portfolios devoted to policy and regulatory affairs in one, and membership and operations in the other. The overall Board now has one chair, 3 elected seats, 2 non-Law Society council members , 2 lay members (non-lawyers and there to be totally impartial and bring in business experience) and finally the two committee chairs. Law Society Chief Executive is also a member of the Board. So I’m in good company.
MM: Are there any areas you are keen to make a difference in your tenure?
PW: I’d like to focus on membership and supporting students. I’d like to focus membership not just on those that are doing the Legal Practice Course, but also on those that are doing a law degree or are currently on a Solicitor or paralegal apprenticeship. If I think back to when I was training to be a Solicitor, the first thing I received from the Law Society was something that said I had to pay a couple of hundred pounds for my student membership fee. This takes you back a bit and doesn’t really put your professional body in a positive light. Membership fees are now dealt with by the SRA but I think apprentices and students in general are overlooked. I think this is missing a big trick. These are people that are interested in finding out about the profession and finding out what it means to be a Solicitor. They are likely to have the time to look for and read the information available but haven’t been able to so far. In the next three years this will change and I hope to engage these members more with the Law Society.
MM: I’m a supervisor of a Solicitor Apprentice at the moment and I think he would find that really useful.
PW: My firm is recruiting two Solicitor Apprentices this year and they will join us in September. After six years they will be qualifying as a Solicitor, so we want to be able to get them fully involved with the Law Society and Junior Lawyers Division at a local and national level.
PW: The other thing the Law Society I’m looking to focus on is information technology and the introduction of technology in general. For example, the Law Society will be modernised so membership can be dealt with through the website. There’s an awful lot of work that’s gone into this and they want to get it right and one of the key reasons I asked to be on the Board was so that I could properly scrutinise that modernisation. I’d like to think that I will be one of the people on the Board that would be able to understand the work being done on the site and could ask effective questions and keep a level of accountability. I really want to make sure that modernisation happens effectively over the next three years.
MM: My next question relates to your talk earlier in the year in Tunis on the lawyer of the future. What do you imagine the lawyer of the future to look like?
PW: That’s a very good question. What I was talking about in Tunis was actually more about how technology is going to make a difference and I spoke to the international cast of lawyers that were assembled in Tunis about the online courts hackathon. I was on the winning team for that and we put together an Artificial Intelligence (AI) based app called CoLin (Courts on Line). The idea was that you could have app to solve legal problems and help people settle their issues, and if it wasn’t settled it could recommend a lawyer that could help. It even had the functionality to create documents like basic witness statements. So when people have issues such as a housing disrepair issue, they could easily deal with it with their housing authority or landlord. I think you’ll see more apps like the one we designed or using an AI based design. We used the Amazon echo with ours. You could actually talk to it and it would be ideal for those people that do not want to or can’t fill out forms.
I think that law firms will use AI more with their clients. The possibilities could include the client speaking with the AI chat bot on a Sunday afternoon, which in turn triggers the setting up of a matter by taking the relevant details, processing ID checks, taking monies on account, putting together a basic statement of facts and details about a problem, case or issue. Then on Monday morning when a lawyer is ready to take a look at it the matter is ready to go and the lawyer can review the matter and start advising far more quickly than they can right now. It would reduce administration and it would allow people to have meaningful easy access to justice and legal services.
The lawyer of the future will be working with AI and systems like CoLin (my hackathon project). It would mean that a particular Associate would be able to handle a bigger caseload than they could before as technology will mean that a lawyer will be able to get through a lot more matters in a day. AI will be able to assist in helping to manage caseloads more effectively, but I can’t emphasise this enough, this will not mean an end to lawyers or support staff.
MM: It’s good that you say that. I spend a great deal of my time working to roll out and implement legal technology and sometimes people are concerned that it is going to take their jobs. In my opinion, it will always be a helpful assistant rather than something that will replace lawyers.
PW: I know there will be some job losses but a good example is that of the accountancy profession because the late 1970s spreadsheets were paper documents. Any changes would therefore take a long time to complete as the Clerks would need to recalculate all the figures. When the Apple2 came along in the 1980s a click of a button could change a whole row instantly, or a whole formula, and as a result of technological change there were massive job losses for the Clerks as there weren’t people adding up anymore. However, as a result accountancy became more affordable and anyone off the street was then able to take in their tax return. The actual volume of accountancy work in the US increased five – fold as a result and firms expanded massively to handle the resultant influx of work in the 1980s & 1990s.
IT changed the accountancy profession but this hasn’t happened to the legal profession to the same extent. However, now you’re getting to a point where AI is able to do some legal analysis and could lead to far greater efficiencies. However, loyalty still matters to people and clients will come back to a law firm that helps them. I think we need to look at the longer term picture. There may be some job losses in the short term, and it will be painful, but the legal profession will evolve and the volume of legal work will exponentially increase.
MM: What skills do you think they will need to develop to get ahead of the curve?
PW: I think it is important not to get pigeon holed into a narrow specialism too soon. This was something I was mindful of when I was training. Sometimes depending on the role you could find yourself getting pigeon holed very quickly. Make sure you have several strengths. It’s beneficial to keep several avenues open otherwise you may find that if you do get pigeon holed in one particular area, then you might find it isn’t the opportunity you thought it was.
Whatever you end up doing focus on a particular area of law and develop your skills. Do something that interests you. I’ve seen too many people that haven’t enjoyed what they do and they’ve either changed job, went in-house or left the legal profession. I’ve seen people leave the legal profession after a short period of time because it wasn’t what they thought it would be, and that’s a massive shame. I thought about this a few years back and asked myself whether what I was doing was what I wanted to be doing? I’d say that passion element cannot be overstated. Just paying the bills isn’t going to be enough.
Find individual areas of passion. Go to law firms and see what you like and don’t like. Also go to Law Society events. Get talking to people already in the profession. It’ll allow you to enjoy the work you do and develop your niche.
MM: I totally agree. When I qualified the main area I was working in I didn’t really enjoy and so knew if I was ever going to practise law it wouldn’t be in that area. I could have pursued it but I was pleased that the opportunity to do work relating to automation and legal tech came along, as it was something I enjoy and had a passion for. If you’re doing it 9 to 5 every day you definitely need to enjoy the work you do.
PW: Another key question is are you going to be happy in an office space? Don’t get restricted into something that’s desk bound if not. It’s useful to work back and understand where it is you want to be and then figure out how to get there. Then make decisions that allow you to get there.
MM: My next question relates to law firms and their use of technology. So do you think law firms could doing more (a) to automate their own processes and (b) provide their clients with the benefits of that technology?
PW: Legal innovation is a lot higher than it may seem. I think that the UK, and in particular England and Wales, there is quite a lot going on when it comes to legal tech and innovation. When I look back at the Legal Geek conference in 2016 there were 500 attendees and that was good going. In 2017 there were around 1200 attendees and it was rammed. You couldn’t get a seat in the main stage. That to me was really illuminating as it showed the strength of interest at the moment. People were coming that were interested in legal tech and there were presentations by people who were already doing it, innovating, using blockchain, developing. There is a huge amount going on.
I know that other jurisdictions look at England and Wales quite enviously and ask “how do they catch up?“. An example is being shown by London. It isn’t an example that’s been shown intentionally but the UK has become a leader in the field, not only for innovation but also for AI and machine learning. There are actual offshoots from that. I’ve been asked to come and give talks to boost innovation in other countries because they know that firms there aren’t looking at this.
However, despite the positive overall picture there aren’t enough firms looking at legal tech and innovation. There are some firms that are making hay and making things happen. There are quite a few that aren’t though and saying it’s too expensive and we are going to do things the way we have always done it.
MM: Do you think that is down to the business structure? For example, the difference between Alternative Business Structures and traditional partnerships.
PW: It could be. There are partners and managers out there that don’t understand the benefits of technology and are still providing legal services in a very linear fashion. So they don’t really understand the potential and are reactive. So taking the online court as an example, they are going to be reactive to that rather than being proactive. The vast majority of firms are on board with technology though.
As a profession we are doing well but there is still quite some way to go but it will get there. In the meantime the Law Society will present a forward looking vision which will present the positive uses of technology but also manage any fears about it.
A young Lawyer asked me at a conference a little while back “will technology take over my legal research?” and I said “yes it will”, but this is a good thing. Instead of engaging in legal research Lawyers will be able to be a thoughtful active thinking lawyer sooner in their career rather than at the moment doing legal research, making tea, photocopying and holding doors open for people. I know what I would rather do.
MM: My last two questions relate to cyber security as I know you’re an expert in your field so firstly, cyber security is a big issue at the moment with various high profile data leaks. What do you think are the biggest cyber threats to law firms at the moment?
PW: At the moment, the biggest threat that firms face will be the difficulty for firms to ensure they are alive to all the risks. The threat always develops and changes. Ransomware atacks such as Wannacry and Petya were big a year ago and people looked at that and made sure they upgraded their computers and stopped using Windows XP, but they need to be alive to the fact that different mediums can be infected. A lot of law firms have understood that you can’t go around use USB flashdrives and some have deactivated their ports. That is good and I feel we are getting somewhere. However, where I think there is still a bit of a problem is with very targeted spearfishing and fraud by determined actors out there.
MM: Is that like the Friday afternoon fraud type scenario?
PW: Yea, exactly. For example, a Friday afternoon fraud would be a firm receiving an invoice for £200 or a purported email from the client confirming the change of account details. The problem is that attacks like this are stil successful on a regular basis so staff really need to have regular training on this and keep up to date with the evolving threats. If a client says he wants to use some dodgy app or send things via their personal Dropbox account then staff need to have the confidence to say no. That element of continuous training is quite crucial. For smaller firms I’d say they don’t need to have the most advanced technology or protection mechanisms. You just have to have awareness and once you have a few cheap or free solutions then you will be able to combat most of the threats out there. After all, the regulator the ICO is only looking for firms to take reasonable and proportionate steps.
MM: ..which leads on to my last question. I know firms will provide their own cyber security training but just generally what tips you offer those juniors in law firms to avoid a data breach or cyber attack within their own firms?
I think the onus is definitely on younger lawyers. They have grown up with technology (e.g. mobile phones, social media, etc) to a far greater extent than those that are likely to be managing them, and they need to use that experience to their advantage. They should demonstrate not only their awareness of this type of technology but also show they are alive to the risks. They need to question. For example, with Snapchat is there an awareness that a picture doesn’t just disappear after a number of seconds but sits on a server somewhere in America. What are the legal consequences of that? By staying up to date with developing risks and reading the Law Society Gazette or popular press, they are able to understand how this happens. They should not be afraid to talk to their seniors and making sure those cyber threats don’t occur within their own firms. They will be able to become invaluable to their employers if they can develop that type of skill set.
Furthermore, if you can show you are aware of technology and are alive to the risks then you will quickly become invaluable to your colleagues and other people out there. I speak to lawyers sometimes they seem to think that they don’t really need to keep up with technology and can allow their digital skills to go to grass as it were compared to their peers in other professions and sectors. They are looking at the people they want to work with in their firms and determine that they aren’t using technology, so why should they? That is the worst possible assumption they can make.
MM: so the juniors of today should be the trend setters then?
PW: Exactly. Do not be afraid to be a trend setter.
MM: That’s all from me. Thanks a lot for giving up your time to talk to me.