Legal Technology and Deontology
There is currently an ongoing debate within the Legal Sector regarding the use of Legal Technology and Deontology.
What on earth is Deontology?
Deontology is a moral philosophy or ethical theory that focuses on the concept of duty or obligation. It emphasises the inherent nature of certain actions or principles, rather than the consequences they produce. Deontologists believe that the morality of an action is determined by adherence to certain rules or duties.
So how does deontology impact on the use of legal technology by lawyers?
- Ethical Considerations
Deontological ethics places importance on adhering to moral duties and principles. Lawyers utilising legal technology need to consider whether its use aligns with their ethical obligations. This includes ensuring the technology maintains client confidentiality, respects privacy, and upholds professional standards.
- Duty of Competence
Lawyers have a duty to provide competent representation to their clients. When employing legal technology, they must ensure they possess the necessary skills and knowledge to effectively and ethically use the technology. They should stay updated on the latest advancements, receive proper training, and evaluate whether the technology enhances their ability to provide competent legal services.
- Client Autonomy and Informed Consent
Deontology emphasises respect for autonomy. Lawyers should inform their clients about the use of legal technology, its benefits, risks, and potential impact on the lawyer-client relationship. Clients should be given the opportunity to provide informed consent regarding the use of technology in their case.
- Professional Judgement
Deontological ethics often requires individual judgment and decision-making based on moral principles. Lawyers using legal technology should exercise their professional judgment to determine when and how to employ the technology. They must assess whether the technology appropriately serves their clients' best interests and aligns with their ethical obligations.
- Potential Limitations
Deontological ethics may raise concerns about the limitations of legal technology. Lawyers should critically evaluate the technology's capabilities, accuracy, and reliability. They must ensure that relying on technology does not compromise their ability to fulfill their duties, such as conducting thorough legal research, providing sound legal advice, or maintaining personal connections with clients.
A Recent Debate
Recently a debate was held by a panel of ten legal professionals in Belgium and the Netherlands with reference to the Deontology versus Technology question.
The key finding were as follows: -
Deontology should not be used as an excuse not to adapt (to the use of technology) – one panelist stated:
Much is possible as long as the fundamental values of our profession are respected: the independence of the lawyer, the professional secrecy, avoiding conflict of interests and the quality of the legal service.
Technology can be used to form a solid framework of how to handle matters. However the panel highlighted a significant challenge within the legal profession: its vast size and diversity, compounded by the competitive nature among lawyers. Consequently, establishing a framework for sharing knowledge and insights becomes extremely challenging. Many lawyers are hesitant to reveal their practices and methods to others, as they perceive knowledge as a source of power and tend to retain it for themselves.
Recent law graduates are advocating for a change in mindset, placing high expectations on their prospective employers. They need law firms to adopt a modern approach and leverage technology. Another panelist strongly emphasises this point, stating:
If firms fail to adapt their practices, they will struggle to attract exceptional talent and ultimately lose in the competitive job market. Moreover, embracing technology is essential for maintaining a healthy work-life balance. Those who resist these changes will not only struggle to recruit new talent but also risk losing their existing employees.
However, a further panelist felt an over-reliance on technology by young lawyers could lead to the following situation:
I’m afraid an important part of their education is getting lost if technology is not being understood or properly used…are junior lawyers, who are using tools to automate all sorts of work, still capable of really understanding what they’re working on? I am a big fan of legal tech if being applied in a smart manner.
Clients nowadays have heightened expectations from lawyers. They desire faster, more efficient, and cost-effective services while demanding tangible value addition. While some lawyers may be concerned about reduced profit margins for simpler tasks, customers are unwilling to pay premium prices for such work. Therefore, if lawyers fail to adapt, they risk being replaced by competitors who meet these evolving customer demands. Even older generations of lawyers must join the movement. The era of using technology as a mere marketing tool without truly harnessing its potential is long gone. As one panellist succinctly put it:
Technology will not replace lawyers, but lawyers who embrace technology will replace those who don't.
In many cases, innovation arises from challenges, leading to the development of technological solutions. However, all panelists unanimously agree that technology will never be the primary focus of lawyers' business. The legal profession, like many others, is undergoing change. While lawyers need to embrace technology, it does not imply that they must become legal tech developers themselves. A panellist explains:
I believe we shouldn't start developing everything ourselves. Legal tech startups can leverage economies of scale by gathering insights from various law firms. Law students do not need to learn coding, but they should understand how legal tech can enhance their services.
So, what is the role of lawyers regarding legal tech? The panel agrees that it involves providing valuable input to facilitate the development of tools that address lawyers' actual challenges. Cross-pollination is crucial. Many legal tech startups fail because they lack a deep understanding of the legal industry's specific obstacles.
Various considerations, such as professional secrecy, need to be taken into account when investing in legal tech. Lawyers often find it challenging to navigate through numerous available solutions and determine their safety. One panellist states:
It would be beneficial if the Bar could offer guidance on approved tools. Lawyers lack the time to individually assess every solution's safety. Having a list of approved tools would be a significant step forward."
The panel acknowledges that lawyers have an active role to play, but the responsibility is shared with the Bar, universities, and legal tech players. Collaboration among these stakeholders is crucial for navigating the evolving landscape of legal technology.
Overall, lawyers applying deontological principles should carefully consider how legal technology aligns with their ethical obligations, competence, respect for client autonomy, professional judgment, and the overall quality of legal representation they provide. It involves striking a balance between leveraging technology's benefits while upholding the core principles of the legal profession. But technology almost certainly needs to be adopted by lawyers to remain competitive to clients, attract the best young legal talent and gain a competitive advantage against other legal firms.