Is the NZ lawyer of the future a robot?

AI is changing how the world works things and businesses need to re-think who and how we hire as a result. The fourth industrial revolution is about to change the major professions beyond recognition and we need to understand what impact technology is having.

One sector being disrupted and challenged by technology is the legal sector. Law firms of tomorrow will need to recruit different combinations of skills.

We spoke with experts in New Zealand about sector disruption and how it has changed their approach to recruitment.

" A machine can read every single document out of a dataset of 10,000 pages – a task that would take a human being a very long time." Dr David Harvey

Talent, imagination and creativity

Retired district court judge Dr David Harvey believes law training needs to change to better fit the coming legal landscape. Imagination and creativity are “absolutely critical” qualities for the lawyers of tomorrow, he says.  

Dr Harvey is director of the University of Auckland’s Centre for Information and Communications Technology.

A legal-techie from way-back, he purchased his first computer in 1979, learned to code, devised a word-processing system for the law firm he worked at, and, in the early 1990s, created a trial management tool called a judicial workstation.

“I was always thinking about how technology could be used,” he says.

Dr Harvey’s enthusiasm for law’s new era is infectious. He speaks of the democratisation of information, the unbundling of legal services, of the Crown courts in England and Wales going paperless.

Dr Harvey says he is “comfortable at the bleeding edge” of law and technology.

“Technology is going to drive the changes,” he says. “A machine can read every single document out of a dataset of 10,000 pages – a task that would take a human being a very long time, give them eyestrain and they would miss things.”

In addition to a solid grounding in law, analysis, the ability to structure an argument and so on, Dr Harvey believes the “ideal law student” should study computer science or systems development - learning to be creative with legal systems.

“When you look at law it is just data,” he says. “Just a whole huge dataset – easy to put into code.”


According to the New Zealand Law Society, the country has over 1,900 privately-owned organisations from which practising lawyers provide legal services. Of those, just less than 1,000 have a single practising lawyer.

From February 2017 over 8,100 worked in law firms – that’s 64 per cent of all New Zealand-based lawyers.

The country has 31 law firms with more than 10 partners and/or directors and in the last five years, firms have increased by 7 per cent.

The total number of New Zealand-based lawyers has risen by 10 per cent in the same time.

Dr Harvey teaches law and information technology to 60 students a year but believes we should be aiming for the model used at Georgetown University, Washington DC.

“Georgetown runs a special law technology course. They say okay, we have teamed up with Neota Logic [AI software],” he says. “We want you to take the financial regulations involved in international currency transactions and design systems that will automate the advice clients need to engage in trading the Euro or Swiss Francs, or whatever.

“The student has to deconstruct the regulations and use Neota Logic to build an advice-giving system which will work and more importantly give the right answers. Now that to me is unbelievable fun.”

Hire millennials (yes, millennials)

Maxwell Smith epitomises the technologically sophisticated digital natives Dr Harvey says the sector needs, comfortable working at newly-emerging interfaces between law, technology and other disciplines.

They are flexible, prefer team-work, can transcend boundaries and are interested in working for companies with forward-looking cultures - where their ideas for using technology to problem-solve and work faster, more accurately and efficiently will be listened to.

They want to add value and they want working environments where their ongoing professional and technical development will be fostered.

Smith - 24 years old - is a corporate solicitor with Bell Gully. He completed a conjoint LLB/BA majoring in psychology at UoA.

Digital natives v digital immigrants

We asked Maxwell Smith about the relationship between digital natives and others – and what that means for the future of the legal sector.

Smith: Our generation has grown up with cellphones and laptops. In my experience digital immigrants don’t adapt to new technologies or systems changes as easily as we do.

Millennials often get stereotyped as being more concerned about work-life balance but I think it’s more that we are looking at other ways of doing the same thing – doing things more efficiently by making the most of technology.

BMcC: Why study law?

MS: I was drawn to debating at high school, in particular the creation of arguments, rhetoric and teamwork. I also enjoyed the arts such as English and history – all that seemed well-suited to law.

An arts degree is great because you can do a range of papers like politics, philosophy and international business.

BMcC: What can native like yourself bring to the future?

Max:  I know there is a lot of fear out there about robots replacing jobs but we should embrace technology. I spoke to a robotics lecturer last year who said I should get out of law as soon as I can.

I think that is a cynical view. There will always be a place for the more traditional lawyer. The manual repetitive tasks of a junior are the most vulnerable to automation.

AI computers are unlikely to replicate human soft skills like negotiation and managing client relationships in the near future.

Curious people

ANZ general manager of human resources Felicity Evans says the developing technological side of law will eventually come to affect banking.

New Zealand’s largest bank employs 8000 New Zealanders and is a significant hirer of legal talent – ANZ’s legal team numbers 30, with a further 30 staff members who are legally-trained but not practising.

Evans says legal technology is impacting most “where you have low complexity, high volume work – whereas we have large, complex transactions.” But she can “absolutely” see a future where a large bank will be interested in hiring graduates with a diverse combination of skills.

“If you think of the speed at which AI, for example, is developing every discipline should be hiring people with their core skill-sets plus tech -- because that is the future,” Evans says.

“We look for a range of competencies. What we want is curious people. People with a future focus.” 

Briar McCormack is a contributing editor

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

editor's picks

31 Oct 2017

Hard, smart work leads to profit at ANZ NZ

David Hisco | Former CEO New Zealand, ANZ

For the first time ANZ’s brand consideration is number one out of all NZ banks.

13 Oct 2017

Scope for growth in NZ, ASEAN trade

Khoon Goh | Head of Asia Research, ANZ

NZ trade with ASEAN is growing but there are several potential areas it can be enhanced.