Technological advances in the legal profession

May 1st, 2023
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During the COVID-19 pandemic the world was reminded of the importance of leveraging technology as a tool to reach professional goals and objectives. The legal profession was no exception, as the profession had to figure out means to use alternative methods of practicing law when human contact was a risk. Technology has continued to develop in a post-pandemic world, with advancements that have the potential to improve or pose risks in the work conducted by legal practitioners.

Virtual courts have continued to be held, which proves that some technological lessons learned during the pandemic will continue in a post-pandemic world. Virtual courts assist with access to justice as the court rolls are lessened daily by virtual courts. Not to mention the fact that virtual meetings have also cut travel time for live meetings, however, some find these intrusive and have the potential of participants concentrating elsewhere during the meeting.

Artificial intelligence (AI) is a reality, which the legal profession cannot ignore. An article published in De Rebus on ChatGPT by Professor Michele van Eck (Chatting with ChatGPT: Will attorneys be able to use AI to draft contracts? 2023 (April) DR 12) details the fact that ChatGPT and similar chatbots have the potential of changing drafting practices. However, the fear that such technology will replace legal practitioners as contract drafters is premature. In this current issue, Diana Mabasa writes ‘[Artificial intelligence (AI)] is pervasive. It is penetrating every area of our lives daily, almost minute by minute and, without being alarmist, conspiratorial, or fearmongering, the dangers of such explosive technology are real. That should not, however, deter the enormous potential it has as a revolutionary tool’ (Diana Mabasa ‘ChatGPT: Exploring the risks of unregulated AI in South Africa’ (2023 (May) DR 17)).

In her article, Ms Mabasa makes an urgent call for a dedicated national AI strategy to address the ethical and social challenges that come with AI usage. She goes on to state: ‘We need a legislative framework in [South Africa] that will put the necessary guardrails in place, educate the public and develop expertise in government to manage this technological avalanche. Without a legal regulatory framework, we will have to play catch-up with the rest of the world as technological advances race along at breakneck speed. The time for legislatures and policymakers to step in is now.’

There are various technology trends legal practitioners can use, these include:

  • Automation: Automation can be done to reduce time-consuming administrative tasks by using tools such as e-mail templating for example. Other areas, which can be automated, include data collection, reporting, daily tasks, and billing.
  • AI: While this area is still unexplored in the legal industry, as mentioned in the above articles, it can be used to carry out repetitive tasks such as checking contracts for missing clauses.
  • Internet of things: This developing technology allows objects used in our daily lives to be plugged into the Internet to provide real-time data. In other words, this is a network of interconnected devices that communicate with one another via a network, which can be used as evidence in legal cases.
  • Voice technology: People usually speak faster than they can type, voice dictation and other voice assistants increase productivity because they type as a person speaks (Essential Tech ‘Technology is changing the legal profession’ (www.essentialtech.com.au, accessed 24-4-2023)).

New practice areas are directly derived from changes in the world, technology being one of them. Legal practitioners can look forward to new areas of work as technology continues to advance. The pitfalls are, however, that as much as technology advances, there will be opportunists who will find ways to breach any secure network. Legal practitioners are reminded to always be alert and read the following judgments: Hawarden v Edward Nathan Sonnenbergs Incorporated [2023] 1 All SA 675 (GJ) and Hartog v Daly and Others (GJ) (unreported case no A5012/2022, 24-1-2023) (Strydom J).

This article was first published in De Rebus in 2023 (May) DR 3.

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