Legal disruption

Dr Philippa Ryan and Professor Lesley Hitchens

Photo: Dr Philippa Ryan and Professor Lesley Hitchens at UTS Faculty of Law

UTS is introducing a new generation of legal professionals who will tackle technology.

Dominic Woolrych had a coveted role at top tier Sydney law firm Minter Ellison, but he wanted to run a startup. Three years ago, he seized the moment and jumped ship, joining two non-lawyers, Damien Andreasen and Phil Morle, who had launched a startup to simplify the way lawyers connect with small and medium–sized enterprise (SME) clients. LawPath is the cloud-based platform they developed, through which any SME paying a monthly subscription can access all the basic legal resources they may need.

"Our aim was not to replace lawyers," says Woolrych, now LawPath's CEO and a Juris Doctor graduate from UTS. "We actually have more than 700 lawyers on our books, but there are a lot of repeat processes that lawyers don’t really need to be involved in." Instead, businesses can use LawPath’s software for tasks such as creating an employment agreement, for data management or to register a trademark without having to pay the full fee for a lawyer. And when a business does need a lawyer, LawPath acts as a marketplace that helps lawyers and clients find the best match for each other's needs and services.

LawPath has signed up three of Australia's largest law firms as well as hundreds of suburban lawyers. It offers a choice of fixed-priced legal quotes and has a client base of more than 40,000 SMEs nationally. The company is now poised to expand into Hong Kong and Singapore.

Dom Woolrych

Woolrych won a 2015 Australian Legal Innovation Index award for his work on LawPath's legal health check. He welcomes UTS initiatives to embrace technology and adopt strategies that encourage students to "think outside the box" about the profession's future.

Dean of Law at UTS, Professor Lesley Hitchens, says the future work environment law graduates will experience will be intimately linked with technology. "The only current certainty is uncertainty, but as legal educators I believe our role is to give our students the confidence and resilience to be excited about those futures and their role in shaping them," she says.

As the UTS Faculty of Law celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, it has recognised many of these technological challenges, and developed projects to equip students with practical experience through co-curricular activities, such as hackathons and app development. In 2018 the faculty is also offering a new major, Legal Futures and Technology, to provide students with a theoretical and practical understanding of technology and new laws.

Tech challenge for social justice

One of these future-facing strategies is bringing together lawyers, technologists, students and NGOs to enable people in need gain better access to legal services.

The Allens, UTS Law and Neota Logic ‘Tech Challenge for Social Justice’ is a partnership that benefits 20 UTS Law students. They are working with Allens, Australia’s oldest law firm, and Neota Logic, the creator of an artificial intelligence platform that enables professionals (such as lawyers and business people) globally to automate their expertise for their clients.

Neota Logic started the program at Georgetown University in the US, and UTS is the first university in NSW to trial it, says Dr Philippa Ryan, UTS lecturer and barrister. "The program gets students to provide a real technological solution to assist NGO’s clients access legal services."

“The only current certainty is uncertainty, but as legal educators I believe our role is to give our students the confidence and resilience to be excited about those futures and their role in shaping them”
– Professor Lesley Hitchens, UTS Dean of Law

The program started this year over the summer, when the students completed an online course to learn basic coding. This prepared them when they returned to UTS in March. Five teams of four students formed, each with a lawyer and law technologist from Allens. The teams then consulted with their NGO client and started the process to develop an app. Over six months, the student teams collaborated with NGOs including Anti–Slavery Australia, the Aurora Project – an organisation that supports Indigenous projects – Inner City Legal Centre and the Refugee Advice and Sydney’s Casework Service.

Emily Paterson, one of the participants who is in her penultimate year at the UTS faculty of Law, is a case in point; her team has been working with Anti–Slavery Australia. "We learned a lot about working with a real client," she says. "A member of our team met with them every two weeks and it was really interesting how their brief changed. They were very easy to work with and open to our ideas on most points, but were very hard line on others." Paterson, who managed the app's user experience, discovered this aspect of the project is of paramount importance.

"Before the training program, we didn't really realise the constraints and limits that you face creating an app," she says. "The program has also really helped me develop 'soft skills' that are invaluable to a future employer, such as client relationships, communication and project management."

Paterson was also part of the first intra-varsity law and technology moot (a mock debate). Ryan says this new moot made students think differently. “We had a number of disruptive technology questions that the students had to address,” she says. “For example, one of the issues was drones and the different jurisdictions they operate in; who is liable — the manufacturer or the operator?”

Both these experiences with the app and the moot have given Paterson an edge, she says, and assisted her to land a role as paralegal with Legal Vision. This is a tech-driven legal startup providing businesses with online legal services with financial backing from commercial law firm Gilbert + Tobin.

Hackathon

In another legaltech initiative, UTS partnered with King & Wood Mallesons (KWM) lawyers in a three-day event – the 2017 #breakinglaw Hackathon held in April this year. Combined KWM lawyers and UTS student teams collaborated to formulate and pitch ideas with a legal-technological solution to a panel of judges. Ten teams competed and the top three teams won prizes totalling $15,000.

Michelle Mahoney, KWM's executive director of innovation, says that the purpose of the Hackathon was to give students a hands–on experience with lawyers in a safe environment where they could learn about technology, innovation, and solving real–world problems. "The atmosphere at the event was collaborative and high energy. Students started with a blank piece of paper and throughout the weekend saw an embryonic idea come to life as a prototype."

The teams were self-selected with four or five students in each team working with one or two lawyers, and then choosing the problem to solve. "This meant we got like-minded people working together who were really enthusiastic about the problem," Mahoney says. Industry specialists, partners and experts from UTS Hatchery also circulated throughout the groups offering students insider expertise on the issues.

UTS Hatchery is an extracurricular program where students learn entrepreneurship, design thinking and startup skills.

"We really enjoyed working with UTS on this event," Mahoney adds. "Our lawyers have deep knowledge of the problems and could accept assumptions. The students provided fresh thinking and could turn ideas inside out."

KWM will now look at the prototypes for desirability, viability and feasibility before testing them with clients.

The new major

Combining all this accumulated law and technology expertise, the faculty is excited to be taking this idea a step further. Next year, the faculty is launching Australia's first Legal Futures and Technology major in a bachelor's degree, Ryan says.

The major will include two capstone subjects, specialist electives and an option to complete a technology internship. "Other universities globally offer it in a master's program but we are going to offer it to undergraduates. It is a very exciting development," Ryan says.

Lawpath's Woolrych is a member of the UTS advisory board for the new major. "It’s good if lawyers can have a basic understanding of coding and software so they can talk to clients knowledgeably," he says. "In the last few years, the law profession has changed so rapidly and lawyers need to prepare for that change and look into that future."

He says that understanding the basics of the law is invaluable, as is earning one's stripes at a top–tier law firm. "But just as the media and professional services have all been disrupted by technology, that's what's happening in law right now," he says. "Established law firms should be turning to their junior lawyers who are plugged into technology and asking them their advice."

Story by Melinda Ham
Photography by Kevin Cheung