The 60 Second Interview: Legal services need to reinvent themselves

Gowling WLG partner and head of commercial, employment, pensions and projects Michael Luckman talks about how AI will change the legal profession and about machines outperforming humans, ahead of his session at The Lawyer’s In-house Counsel as Business Partner conference.

Michael Luckman

What does innovation mean when it comes to legal services?

Innovation is a state of mind – the restless urge continually to assess what we do and how we do it in order to do it better. It is also a creative process which needs us to look with fresh eyes at known situations and apply new and different thinking to them.

Many lawyers do not think they are innovative. However, even if they lack the confidence, they absolutely have the critical thinking and problem solving skills to be so. Too often we assume the results need to be quantum leaps equivalent to the proving of the Higgs boson or discovering gravitational waves. Often, it is a small tweak that makes a significant difference.

What is your one big prediction on the future of legal services?

The legal profession collectively undersells its abilities. By instinct and nurture, we define ourselves – we can do this, we cannot do that – and our understandable and ingrained interest in words and minutiae hides or represses our deeper skills to understand and shape the big picture and solve the big problems.

We will have a poor future if we limit ourselves to traditional legal “outputs” as many of these will become commodity or execution only, susceptible to AI or non-legal risk management. Legal services need to reinvent themselves as a recognised real value-add at board level to the businesses they serve, using those critical thinking and problem solving skills – and, yes, perhaps even creativity! – in wider strategic thinking and critical business brain surgery.

We are approaching a time when machines will be able to outperform humans at almost any task. Should lawyers start worrying about proving their worth?

Are you an optimist or a pessimist? In the early 1970s, the thinker Paul Ehrlich predicted imminent world collapse through a Malthusian catastrophe he called the population bomb. He even advocated the abandonment of aid to India which he considered to be on the verge of self-destruction and beyond help.

India is now the world’s sixth biggest economy. Ehrlich engendered a rival theory called cornucopianism (espoused by the economist, Julian Simon) which argued that human ingenuity will always find a way, and so far Julian has won the bet. In the short to medium term I am a cornucopian – in the longer term we are all (including our planet) dead.

I think that AI will change the profession radically, and not just in processing or commodity areas but in judgmental areas too but it will not eliminate it. However, we will need to use our ingenuity to find better ways to add value and that value will not necessarily be traditional. In turn, this will mean the skills we need, the people we recruit and the ways we work will differ markedly.

You are speaking at In-house Counsel as Business Partner on the 6-7 November: how would you describe the event in 3 words?

Motivating, not Brexit.

Tell us two truths and one lie about yourself (in any order)

  • I love celery – I carry a little box of it wherever I go
  • I am entitled to drive sheep over London Bridge
  • I shared a platform with David Cameron on a debate over Brexit

If you hadn’t become a lawyer, what would you have done instead?

As a young man I wanted to fly Harriers off aircraft carriers. Now I wish I was a highly respected but not necessarily best-selling author of meaningful fiction. In reality, I’d probably have been writing reports on unimportant things for some organisation and pondering the futility of everything.