Legal Practice in the Digital Era

By Brenda Ainomugisha

Food for thought: which lawyer practices in this era without technology?

This article is a personal contribution to the debate on whether, in this 4th industrial revolution and globalization, lawyers can build successful legal practices without being invested in technology.

In my opinion, I believe the two (legal practice and technology) are distinct but complement each other. We are in an era where our whole way of living and doing things is shaped by technology; it would therefore be a disservice for a lawyer to ignore the prevailing trends.

In his article What to Teach Law Students About Artificial Intelligence and Law,” Harry Surden wrote, “Where today’s lawyers are acting like computers, tomorrow they will be replaced by computers.” This may seem harsh, but it’s true, and some of the replacements are evident already.

Take, for example, Lawyerwangu, a Kenyan online startup that enables an individual to personally complete contracts, leases, affidavits, and other documents easily and cheaply without looking for law firm stamps.

One will argue that technology is a threat and it’s bound to wipe out the profession; however, the same can also be seen as an opportunity to add value to one’s abilities and invest in learning how to execute better as a lawyer in line with the current technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI).

What is AI?

It is the use of technology to automate tasks that, when done by humans, require intelligence, as defined by Professor Harry Surden in Ethics of AI in Law.

In the same book, he surveys most of the important ethical topics involving the use of AI within the legal system itself, and the question is, as AI becomes increasingly integrated within the legal system, how can society ensure that core legal values are preserved?

These legal values include equal treatment under the law, facts rather than social status or power, procedure, fairness and due process, and adequate access to justice for all, among others.

This brings to mind the event on March 1, 2022, where the Chief Justice, Hon. Justice Alfonse Chigamoy Owiny-Dollo, presided over the launch of the Electronic Court Case Management Information System (ECCMIS) at Judiciary Headquarters in Kampala.

This is a system that automates and tracks all aspects of a case life cycle, from initial filling through disposition and appeal to each individual party for any case type.

It includes e-filling, e-payments, and e-processing. The Chief Justice, in his words, said, “Today we are here to witness and celebrate the birth of another ICT system.”

In an article written by Winkler Partners, the first law firm in Taiwan was approved to operate as a partnership between Taiwan-licensed and foreign-licensed lawyers. It states that in Taiwan, the Judicial Yuan (Taiwan’s judicial authority) has commissioned Chunghwa Telecom to develop an automated system for generating judgments.

It is hoped that this system will help save a significant amount of judges’ time that would usually be spent on writing judgments.

Furthermore, it is crucial to note that the judgment generated by the system will serve as a “draft” that judges can refer to. In other words, judges will still need to determine the facts of the crime, how to apply the law, and sentencing, as these decisions remain in the hands of the judges.

Today, a lawyer can do research on a computer or a mobile gadget in the comfort of their home without necessarily going to the library. Indeed, as one continues to interface with technology, it eases work and improves the lawyer’s competence.

AI should therefore be seen as a tool to enhance law practice beyond the status quo and to acknowledge that law and technology complement rather than compete with each other.