Life of a lawyer on a Friday night

“Why don’t you come out and join us for a drink?” A trainee solicitor came into my office, as my unusual absence at happy hour drinks was noticeable.

“I can’t…” I dithered. My eyes stared at the computer screen as if I were in a trance. I was snowed under with a mind-numbing volume of documents that, if printed and bound, would offer plenty of reasons to cancel my lavish gym membership and lift them as replacement.

All was fine and dandy until 5pm on a Friday night when I had been tasked with locating, explaining, and making understandable an abstruse, bespoke clause in one of our five-year-old transactions.

The first task of the day. As a mid-level associate, I could delegate to a junior associate or a trainee, but it would take me longer to explain to them what I needed than to do it myself. More importantly, I feared that the juniors might not know what to look for. Indeed, neither did I. How many of us recalled moments like this?

“How many tasks were straightforwardly legal or merely shrouded in the mystery of legal gobbledygook? Could we leverage technology to locate relevant materials in one-tenth of the time and summarize what was agreed before in readable terms?”

“The VP wants it,” my supervisor told me nonchalantly. “I don’t know what he wants, but he needs it urgently.” No need to ask what “urgently” means. In professional service industry lingo, “urgent” (or a variation thereof) means anything that was needed since yesteryear. To this day, I have never forgotten the vestige of capitulation in his tone — as if this was and would continue to be an essential part of a lawyer’s life.

I spent long, fruitless hours rummaging through a smorgasbord of document anarchy — from old shared drives to mislabeled versions of vital documents and CD-Rom bibles (i.e., a set of main documents signed in a transaction that are grouped together for ease of reference). To add insult to injury, “Control-F” lost its usual reliable effects on all signed and scanned documents. “At least I am not ploughing through tens of thousands of pages…” was the grin-and-bear-it attitude I could muster in response to my forfeited evening plans.

The transaction preceded my time at the firm. Everyone who was involved in the transaction was no longer employed by the firm except the secretaries, staunch members of the legal ecosystem typically outlasting everybody else.

The practice of law is a team sport. In the current legal era, it’s rare to see a lawyer who stays at the same firm for an entire career. This means that junior associates will often arrive at work one day only to find out that their mentors have left or are leaving. Just like that, work relationships are over and you are sometimes, like I was, asked to find a needle in the legal haystack. An enormous haystack.

A good lawyer is half intelligence/hard work and half experience. Modern technology is geared towards taking on the commoditized end of the spectrum while enabling junior lawyers to learn how to deliver bespoke services. How many important life events have lawyers missed because we needed to attend to these labor-intensive, mentally exhausting “urgent” matters? How many tasks were straightforwardly legal or merely shrouded in the mystery of legal gobbledygook? Could we leverage technology to locate relevant materials in one-tenth of the time and summarize what was agreed before in readable terms?

In the literature on technology, creativity, and innovation, the role of law is often peripheral. There is an urgent need to inject technology into the discourse of innovation and creativity management in the legal spectrum. The provision of traditional legal services is in deep reflexive need of an upgrade.

The seminal development of technology will one day end lawyer hegemony of legal delivery and debunk industry myths that only lawyers are competent to perform certain legal tasks. The unstated preference for someone who holds a practicing certificate over someone who might be equally capable fueled the professional exceptionalism that is being chipped away by an interdisciplinary approach to problem-solving where diverse professional competencies, enabled by advancing technology, collaborate to solve complex business challenges.

To apportion risk, agreements should continue to be drafted and finalized by lawyers, but the associated knowledge and in fact, work, need not be reserved for lawyers only. Even if we are a long way from adopting a blanket “add tech and stir” recipe, by all accounts, we are at least overdue for learning how to navigate this new terrain that must be in sync with technological advances.