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Innovation, technology and legal professionals of tomorrow

All lawyers should be compelled to undergo regular technology competency training to ensure they fulfil client obligations in a world of innovation and increased technological impacts, according to a leading US legal authority.

The current state of ‘innovation impacts’ was of such concern, the esteemed law academic believes the legal profession has an obligation to guarantee the practice of law remained ethical.

University of Houston Law Centre Professor Renee Newman Knake – a leading scholar on innovation – said lawyers should be educated about the ethical implications of technology in legal practice during their university law education, and on a continued basis during practice.

Professor Knake spoke exclusively to Proctor during a recent visit to Australia to complete a six-month stint as Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology’s Fullbright Distinguished Chair in Enterprise and Innovation.

“Innovation impacts all aspects of life, but for the legal profession there are particular concerns,’’ Professor Knake said.

“Lawyers have special obligations to their clients and to the public to ensure that innovations – in other words, changes – in the practice of law are ethical.

“A different sort of concern from many parts of the profession is how to keep with the pace of innovation or even how to engage with it in the first instance.

“Many individuals become lawyers because they do not envision themselves as entrepreneurs or innovators, so it is important to provide lawyers exposure and training.’’

The commencement of training needed to be undertaken at an early stage of a lawyer’s career and before entering the profession, Professor Knake said, and regular, ongoing education should be undertaken throughout a person’s career.

“Lawyers should be educated about the ethical implications of technology in law practice during their law school education and on a continuing basis during practice,” she said.

“The American Bar Association adopted new language in 2012 that expanded the duty of competence to include an affirmative obligation to ‘keep abreast of changes in the law and its practice, including the risks and benefits of relevant technology.’

“Thirty-seven jurisdictions have adopted that language or some similar form of obligation. I believe that this sort of requirement should be followed universally throughout the US and around the globe.’’

On the topic of ‘technological innovation’, Professor Knake said the two need not be exclusively linked.

“Technology is important but that alone is not innovation,” she said.

“Innovation can be changes in process or methods, some of which may be enhanced by technology, but not necessarily.”

Professor Knake was also slightly guarded on whether entrepreneurial and innovative lawyers of today and tomorrow would have more rewarding and meaningful legal careers.

“Not necessarily, though I do think that it is a path toward creating a rewarding and meaningful career in the law,” she said.

“This is certainly true for my past students who carved out new careers in roles that did not exist when I was in law school; for example, as legal solutions architects or innovation counsel.”

Professor Knake was adamant, however, that collaboration beyond law and multidisciplinary practices would be imperative in the years ahead.

“Most – maybe even all – clients with legal problems also need expertise from other disciplines to reach full solutions,” she said.

“The more lawyers can collaborate with other professionals and service providers to resolve problems for clients, the better.’’

Professor Knake is an internationally recognised expert on professional responsibility and legal ethics. She has been invited to speak throughout the United States and in countries such as Australia, Canada, England, Guatemala, Mexico, and the United Arab Emirates.

She is regularly contacted to assist in legal matters involving lawyer discipline and judicial ethics, and has twice testified successfully before the Texas Supreme Court Special Court of Review to support reversal of discipline charges against judges.

Tony Keim is a newspaper journalist with more than 25-year’s experience specialising in court and crime reporting. He is the QLS Media manager and in-house journalist.

This story was originally published in Proctor September 2020.

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