Five years ago, Dan Hunter was charged with starting one of the most innovative and tech-focused law schools in Australia. Earlier this year, he left Swinburne Law School to take up a new challenge: bringing that same energy to one of Australia’s biggest law schools – Queensland University of Technology.
Our COO, Sam Flynn, sat down with him to find out why technology is so central to his academic focus, what law students should be excited by and what the future of the profession looks like.
I’ve been an academic for a really long time. I started in computer science and law, and have moved backwards and forwards across the divide between law and tech since then. What led me to this specific job was my time as founding Dean of Swinburne Law School.
They chose me because they wanted the course to be tech-focused and I had a tech background. And I loved the idea. It was also one of those moments where the stars aligned and everyone realised that the law was changing, the profession was under threat and technology was going to be a component of that. My job was to predict how that would work.
And, when the opportunity came up at QUT to be in charge of both the law school and the broader legal practice program, I jumped. The opportunity to take the lessons I’d learned around law and technology, to apply them to other areas – like criminal justice – was too good to pass up.
The profession is changing, quickly, but no one knows what the hell to do. The profession isn’t well-placed to deal with this change: we’re backward looking, conservative, not technologically literate and often afraid. The first lesson is that this change is being driven by macro-factors, rather than the profession itself.
The second lesson is that law schools are not well-suited to addressing this change either. Legal education happens in the framework of the legal profession, the law degree and professional accreditation as a lawyer. But legal work happens in lots of different careers. The practice of law is differently defined today than it was in the 19th century.
Think about risk and compliance and regulatory work. Conveyancing. Immigration. Criminal justice. Corrections. Law enforcement. It’s all about the law, but lawyers are not necessarily doing this work.
What’s driving me at the moment is the idea of imitating a health-sciences model for law. In medicine, we have different schools of medicine that address different parts of health. We don’t do that in the law. Our answer is: put a lawyer on it! But we know they’re not necessarily the right solution.
The why is easy! Students are going out into a profession which is being transformed by tech. It would be weird if we didn’t take it seriously, though lots of people still don’t. It’s an add-on after constitutional law, for example.
Where once we sat in an office with a quill to write contracts, now we use MS Word. But law schools don’t accommodate the reality of how much tech there is and how it’s being used. The first step is to recognise that every graduate or student needs to know something about this stuff to function in their day-to-day work.
How should law schools do this?
First, every student in the cohort needs to at least be exposed to the technology. Even if they can’t use it, they should know what it is. For example, in contract law, include a tutorial about smart contracts and blockchain. Or, in administrative law, they should be aware of automated decision-making, like Centrelink entitlements and tax.
Secondly, law schools should have a series of electives. This could look like tech and law – which is what I’ve taught, showing people how to use tech in a standard law practice – or even the law of technology. The next level up is experiential opportunities, for which students can self-select.
Within 45 minutes of first introducing the law students in that class to Josef, they had coded their first chatbot. Everyone in that class had the “ah-ha” moment: “Wow, I used to think that I was a lawyer, and now I think I can do that stuff. It’s not that hard.”
For people who have no experience in coding, this kind of platform is so valuable. That sort of confidence is incredibly important and permits a lot of innovation. I’ve also seen Josef used in firms like MinterEllison, where I hear comments like: “I used to be a lawyer and now I’m a computer scientist!” You guys have done an amazing job in creating an environment where people can be successful without being technical.
The reason why I teach students the way that I do is so they don’t think they’ll become programmers. They shouldn’t become programmers. Lawyers-as-coder is b*llshit. Lawyers should be lawyers. They should just be better ones, and better resourced ones.
Instead, lawyers are engaged in the process of translation. If lawyers don’t have experience with tech, they can’t understand what might go wrong when they translate from law to code. One of the things that Josef does really well is forcing them to understand that process of translation.
The observation then and now is that if you understand the process of reasoning, then these systems can be truly valuable. But you have to understand that process. You can’t just throw the tool at it.
There are lots of ways of reading legal systems and principles and language, and though the algorithms you throw at it will generate a response, that response may not be useful. Computers can do legal reasoning, but they may not do it in the same way as us.
For example, look at how lawyers make analogies through precedent. It’s kind of like a matching process, which computers are very good at. As long as the person programming the computer understands why the lawyer is doing that, then they can do it well. For the same reason, we can better teach deep learning systems to recognise a cat or a stop sign or a person by understanding why we are doing that: namely, to avoid hitting a cat or a stop sign or a person.
Queensland University of Technology
Legal tech will change the way that we address every legal problem. We’ll see more commoditised legal work, significant improvements in NLP understanding of legal texts and a hollowing out of the lower and mid-level work that was previously done by lawyers. Lawyers aren’t going to go away; but the structure will change.
There is a world of opportunity for someone who is prepared to knuckle down and get some training in [the law and tech] space.
Because the senior parts of the profession are very resistant to learning new things, they look to younger lawyers to be the ones to bring them the solutions. This is a dynamic we haven’t seen before in the profession. It’s really different. Ordinarily senior lawyers have been dismissive of the skills of junior lawyers. But now I hear all the time that they rely on younger parts of the profession to show them the way.
And, with products like Josef, you can learn this stuff – that previously would have been really difficult – quite easily. It’s not too hard!