The Intersection of Technology Competence and Professional Responsibility: Opportunities and Obligations for Legal Education

Abstract

Technology has fundamentally changed the legal profession and the delivery of legal services. Lawyers routinely use technology, including artificial intelligence, for legal research, e-discovery, document review, practice management, timekeeping and billing, document drafting, and many other tasks. The American Bar Association (ABA) amended the Model Rules of Professional Conduct in 2012 to include an explicit duty of technology competence, and thirty-nine states have adopted a rule requiring technology competence. Further, the ABA adopted a resolution in 2019 urging the courts and profession to address the ethical issues around using artificial intelligence in the practice of law. This essay traces the developing use of technology in the practice of law, examines the ABA’s guidance with respect to the use of technology in practice, and addresses the intersection of legal competence and professional responsibility. Law schools have an obligation to prepare students to be effective, ethical, and responsible participants in the legal profession, which includes technology competence. Further, law schools must establish learning outcomes which provide competency in professional skills needed for competent and ethical participation as members of the legal profession, which also includes technology competence. Law schools have many opportunities to prepare students to be ethical, responsible users of technology in practice. Required Professional Responsibility courses and curricula should include the ethical pitfalls and considerations of using technology in practice. Law schools should also address the intersection of technology and professional responsibility in legal writing courses, clinics, and externships.

 

Thompson, LeighAnne, The Intersection of Technology Competence and Professional Responsibility: Opportunities and Obligations for Legal Education (July 25, 2021).
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Solicitors Regulation Authority of England and Wales publishes results of study into innovation in the legal sector

The Solicitors Regulation Authority of England and Wales (SRA) has published the results of its independent study into innovation in the legal sector, commissioned in March.  The study was carried out on behalf of the SRA by a research team at the University of Oxford which included Professors Mari Sako and John Armour. The study has concluded that the majority of law firms were increasing their day-to-day use of technology, however, the development of bespoke legal technology was largely focused on advances which would benefit larger corporate clients.

The study has found that the pandemic has significantly impacted the uptake of technology, over the past 18 months it has been found that 87% of firms now use video conferencing services to meet clients and 66% store data in the cloud. 90% of firms also reported that changes made during the COVID-19 pandemic will be kept in place to some extent.

Technology usage was found to be highest among younger firms, firms operating through alternative business structures, and firms working in areas where technology was already established, like conveyancing. In terms of more advanced technology use- such as the use of automated documents, interactive websites and artificial intelligence – a little more than a third (37%) of law firms said they were currently using these.

The research found that the key stumbling blocks in innovation were related to funding and scalability. This meant that most bespoke development among technology companies was focused on products for the corporate sector. Firms working with individuals and small businesses stated that the most common barriers to accessing more advanced or targeted technological solutions were affordability, a lack of inhouse technology skills, or uncertainty over the business benefits from making an investment.

Anna Bradley, Chair of the SRA, said: “Supporting innovation and the adoption of legal technology is a key priority, as we set out in our Corporate Strategy. It can help increase access to justice for the public and small businesses, as well as supporting firms to be more efficient, benefitting everyone and the economy as a whole. These findings drive home the fact that when we talk about technology, we need to remember just how broad that term is and how far there is for some to travel. This is not just about artificial intelligence, virtual reality or future technologies. Some of the innovation which has the greatest potential to improve access to justice at pace is already available. Such technology can be applied widely and be used on a day-to-day basis to benefit both consumers and law firms. The challenge now is how we all work together to enable this to happen.”

Mari Sako, Professor of Management Studies at the University of Oxford and project leader for this research, added: “Technology and innovation have already changed, and will continue to change, the face of the legal services sector. Our research provides robust evidence of this. But we also found that benefits from legal technology are not evenly distributed across different market segments. Regulators, including the SRA, collaborating with other stakeholders could play a major role, not only to lower regulatory uncertainty but also to level the playing field across the market segments.”

Based on their report, researchers identified three key areas to be addressed in order to allow for greater development of innovation and technology:

  • Greater support and co-ordination among government, regulators and tech developers – particularly in encouraging innovation and identifying funding paths
  • Increasing public and law firm trust in new approaches and technologies
  • Increasing the technological and innovation skills and knowledge bases within the legal sector.

Read more and access the research here.

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IBA African Regional Forum releases a new guide on data protection and privacy laws for the legal profession

The International Bar Association (IBA) African Regional Forum has released a new Data Protection/Privacy Guide for Lawyers in Africa, in recognition of growing requirements for safeguarding of personal data in accordance with legal principles across the continent. The guide was developed in the context of the European Union’s data protection law, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which lays out rules and conditions around the collection and processing of personal information from individuals who live in the EU. Since the implementation of the GDPR data controllers in both Europe and Africa have called for the implementation of similar standards in Africa. However, there has been little guidance given to legal practitioners as to how to comply with the directives.

Pieter Steyn, the immediate past Co-Chair of the African Regional Forum and the Guide’s project lead said: ‘The aim of the IBA African Regional Forum’s new guide is to provide vital support for practitioners navigating the complex and changing world of data protection law. Comprehensive and practical in design, the guide will aid lawyers in advising clients and ensuring compliance by their practices with the fast-evolving and increasingly expansive areas of data protection and privacy laws’.

The new guide has drawn on international best practice guidelines and data laws already adopted in African nations.  Chapters include:

  • Data protection in Africa;
  • Data protection principles;
  • Individual rights;
  • Data controller/data processor obligations; and
  • Regulator powers;

Babatunde Ademola Ajibade, SAN (PhD) FCIArb, Chair of the IBA African Regional Forum and Managing Partner at SPA Ajibade & Co in Nigeria, commented: ‘Data protection is of great importance to us all. There are many related rights for individuals, including the right to access, rectification and erasure, all of which must be safeguarded by individuals who have a firm understanding of their legal and moral obligation to ensure the necessity of protection. I am delighted that the IBA African Regional Forum is at the forefront of an initiative to provide guidance to lawyers and bar associations on the new data protection regimes across the continent and the importance of protecting personal data and privacy for individuals and business.’

Read more about the guide and download it here.

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Law Society of Scotland survey finds support for increased use of remote civil hearings

A newly released survey of Scottish solicitors, by the Law Society of Scotland, has found that more than three-quarters of respondent think that aspects of remote civil court work should continue post-pandemic. The results found that the majority of civil court practitioners have indicated that they think remote hearings work well for procedural and uncontentious matters, however far fewer of the survey respondents thought that more complex hearings should be carried out remotely.

The survey found that:

  • 78.5% of respondents said they would like remote court hearings to continue after the pandemic. Of those, 91% said they thought procedural hearings worked particularly well, and almost all, at 99%, saying they would like to see them continue remotely.
  • However 5% thought proofs, a civil court hearing which is determined by a judge or sheriff, and 3% thought evidential hearings, such as a tribunal, worked well remotely. A quarter of respondents thought first instance debates worked well.
  • 32%, stated that they had no practical difficulties when participating in remote hearings, however 45% found it challenging to obtain clients’ instructions during remote proceedings. 41% of respondents thought that their clients struggled to either understand or participate and almost a quarter of solicitors, at 23%, found it more difficult to articulate their position.
  • The vast majority of respondents at 91% indicating that it saved travel time, 75% that it saved waiting time, 69% that it reduced costs and over half, at 55%, said it was more efficient than being personally present in court.
  • Concerns were raised in relation to the difficulties in assessing witness credibility and reliability remotely and respondents also said the lack of opportunity for proper face-to-face interaction with other agents, witnesses, and with sheriffs and judges, hindered effective participation. There were also issues with clients feeling disengaged from proceedings and problems with technology, including access to suitable devices and connectivity issues.

Amanda Millar, President of the Law Society of Scotland, said: “Covid-19 has instigated enormous change in the way we all work over the past year. The legal profession has adapted to this rapid change, however examining what has and has not worked well in relation to online proceedings will be essential as we begin to look at how civil courts should operate post-pandemic. We can draw useful insights from the survey findings and they will be helpful in considering what aspects, if any, of remote hearings could or should be incorporated into the civil court procedure longer term. While many of our members have indicated that remote hearings should continue in some form, there should be provision for in-person hearings, particularly in relation to more complex cases, but also for procedural hearings when required.”

Read more about the survey and the results. 

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Nigeria Bar Association launches survey on technology and globalisation

Following the creation of the Future of Legal Practice Committee, by the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), which was recently established with a mandate of facilitating significant improvement in the quality and standard of legal services rendered by legal practitioners. The NBA has now launched a survey of all its members collating the views of both the Bar and the Bench.

The views will be collated into a future report on the effects of technological innovation and globalisation on the legal profession in Nigeria. The results will then be used to inform the future direction of the Committee and its recommendation to the NBA.

View the survey here, or read more here.

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Lawyer Ethics for Innovation

Abstract

Law struggles to keep pace with innovation. Twenty-first century advancements like artificial intelligence, block chain, and data analytics are already in use by academic institutions, corporations, government entities, health care providers, and others but many questions remain about individual autonomy, identity, privacy, and security. Even as new laws address known threats, future technology developments and process improvements, fueled by consumer-demand and globalization, inevitably will present externalities that the legal community has yet to confront.

How do we design laws and systems to ensure accountability, equality, and transparency in this environment of rapid change? A solution can be found in a surprising source — the regulation of professional ethics. Lawyers have the capacity to play a critical role both in assessing the risks and benefits of innovation generally and also in deploying innovative tools to enhance the delivery of legal services. This Article is the first to articulate a formal obligation of ethical innovation as a component of professional discipline and licensing rules. This proposal comes at a time when the legal profession is increasingly immersed in innovation — whether measured by the number of “NewLaw” providers, exponentially increasing financial investment in legal tech, or by the American Bar Association’s 2020 Resolution supporting innovation to address the access-to-justice crisis.

Rather than taking a particular side in the debate over whether lawyers and judges should adopt innovations like artificial intelligence or machine learning, this Article acknowledges that technology advancements inevitably are part of modern society, including the practice of law, and advocates for reforms to professional conduct rules to protect individuals in the midst of innovation. This protection is especially warranted when innovation is forced amidst a moment of crisis, for example as seen when the 2020 coronavirus pandemic abruptly halted law practice in its traditional form, canceling office meetings and jury trials and other in‑person interactions. Some lawyers and courts were prepared, others were not. Some clients received the legal advice through virtual consultations or apps, and had their cases decided by judges via Zoom hearings, but many found themselves without the justice they needed. The lawyers and judges at the forefront of ethical innovation before the pandemic hit were the ones best able to serve their clients. Formalizing a duty to innovate as an ethical obligation will make the profession better prepared to serve the public in the future.

(Newman) Knake Jefferson, Renee, Lawyer Ethics for Innovation (April 20, 2021). 35 Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics and Public Policy 1 (2021), U of Houston Law Center No. 2021-A-7,
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Legal Services Board of England and Wales releases new report on how regulation can foster innovation

On the 20th of April, the Legal Services Board (LSB) released a report outlining what legal services can do to support the safe development of technology and innovation, whilst also acting in the public interest. The report outlines steps regulators can take to create an environment that ‘de-risks’ innovation and reduces uncertainty for tech providers and consumers.

In the report, the LSB outlines the role that regulation plays in removing barriers to innovation, both by increasing consumer trust and managing risks. This would in turn allow technology to open the legal services market to underserved elements of society, such as citizens and small business. Addressing unmet legal need and access to justice issues.

The LSB also notes that technology carries risks that need to be considered and managed. These include ensuring that those with low digital capability and digital literacy are not excluded from accessing essential services. The ethical and regulatory challenges of advanced technologies such as Artificial Intelligence must also be considered while ensuring they are not stifled.

Matthew Hill, Chief Executive of the Legal Services Board, has said: “Technology has the potential to improve access to legal services. It can enable citizens to get advice and support in a way, and at a time, that suits them. It can also help legal professionals carry out their work in new ways that make them more competitive, reduce costs and support growth. Covid-19 has accelerated the pace and scale of technological change, with many providers adapting and using technology to offer their services in new ways. We have started to see what is possible, but there is a long way to go to unlock the full potential. Regulation can help build on the momentum that Covid-19 has created and harness technology to reshape legal services to better meet the needs of society. Regulation can also help secure consumer confidence and build trust in new technology. Legal services regulators can take encouragement in opening up their regulatory arrangements to support new ways of delivering services for the benefit of consumers. As the oversight regulator for legal services, we have an important role in fostering innovation. From considering technology as part of our regulatory performance framework to exploring a statutory statement that can underpin proactive regulatory arrangements, we can create, and maintain, a regulatory environment that unlocks the role of technology and innovation in increasing access.”

Read the full report and recommendations here. 

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New research project on innovation and the use of technology in the legal sector in England and Wales launched by the Solicitors Regulation Authority

The Solicitors Regulation Authority of England and Wales (SRA) is launching a piece of independent research into the use of technology and innovation in the legal sector, and how this may develop in the future. The research is being carried out by a research team at the University of Oxford including Professors Mari Sako and John Armour.

All 10,200 law firms regulated by the SRA in England and Wales are being asked to complete a survey around their use of legal technology, as well what the impact of COVID-19 has been on their use of technology.

As well as surveying firms, the university is also conducting wider research with a range of industry stakeholders from both within and beyond the legal profession, with a focus on how innovation and technology can improve access to services within the public.

The aim of the report is to improve understanding of:

  • current use of innovation and technology across the sector
  • likely areas of future development
  • how to best support future innovations, including by potentially removing regulatory barriers

Anna Bradley, Chair of the SRA Board, said: “We are committed to supporting the use of innovation and legal technology that helps to meet the needs of the public, business community, law firms and the economy. Commissioning this research from the University of Oxford is an important step as we work to bring together the views of a wide range of stakeholders on what is happening in our sector at the moment, and what the future might hold. New ways of doing business and the increasing use of legal technology will affect everyone working in the legal sector, so we want to hear from as many people as possible. I encourage you all to take this opportunity to get their views heard.”

Further information about the report, including how non-law firm stakeholders can be involved is available here. 

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Law Society of Ontario approves new regulatory sandbox

On April 22, 2021, the Convocation of the Law Society of Ontario approved the Technology Task Force’s “Regulatory Sandbox for Innovative Technological Legal Services” Report.  As a result, a five-year pilot project will be launched in Q4 of 2021. In the pilot approved participants will be granted express permission by the Law Society to serve consumers using innovative technological legal services (ITLS). The participants will be required to comply with specialised requirements for risk-based monitoring and reporting.

The Technology Task Force is composed of lawyer, paralegal and publicly-appointed lay benchers, and has the mandate to consider the role of technology in the delivery of legal services, as well as to examine the role of the Law Society as a regulator in a changing, tech-enabled environment, and explore how the Law Society can encourage innovation.

The sandbox project has been designed to help fulfil these responsibilities by:

  • Facilitating access to justice: eliminating regulatory uncertainty around ITLS, and removing barriers to the development of ITLS, allowing products to be developed that can address unmet legal need.
  • Protecting the public: The pilot project provides a mechanism to ensure ITLS consumers receive competent and ethical services and have access to recourse, as well as the information to make informed choices about the providers of the services.
  • Informing future regulatory development: The pilot project will provide evidence to inform longer-term decision-making about ITLS regulation.

Read the full report about the pilot here, or read more on the Law Society’s website.

 

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American Bar Association issues new guidance on remote working and ethical use of technology

The American Bar Association Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility has released a formal opinion cataloguing the relevant model rules and technological considerations that lawyers should be aware of when practising virtually. The opinion (Formal Opinion 498) identifies some of the minimum requirements for virtual practice under the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct as well as suggesting several best practices to meet ethical obligations in a virtual setting.

The opinion states that “When practising virtually, lawyers must particularly consider ethical duties regarding competence, diligence, and communication, especially when using technology,” the opinion said. “In compliance with the duty of confidentiality, lawyers must make reasonable efforts to prevent inadvertent or unauthorized disclosures of information relating to the representation and take reasonable precautions when transmitting such information.” Noting that the “duty of supervision” requires lawyers who supervise others to “make reasonable efforts to ensure” that their direct reports comply with the model rules, particularly if these colleagues are still working virtually.

The best practices cover hardware devices and software systems; accessing client files and data; using virtual meeting platforms and videoconferencing; and virtual document and data exchange platforms, among others.

Read the full opinion here.

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