An event review of the 2020 Law Conference
The London Law Conference is an annual student-lead conference seeking to inspire future lawyers. This year’s edition, sponsored by major City law firms and the UCL Law for All Society, discussed topics such as legal tech, diversity in the legal industry, international law, the future of the bar and the passing of the bill criminalising upskirting. In case you were unable to attend this event, here is a summary of what we learned.
The first speaker of the day, Christina Blacklaws, a legal innovation consultant, President of the Law Society and chair of the LawTech Delivery Panel at the Ministry of Justice, addressed the current state of and issues with lawtech. Research conducted by the LawTech panel demonstrates that the general focus is too much on improving existing technology and cost-saving automation, rather than on client-facing innovation. The transformation of the legal service industry has not yet taken place to the extent that we have observed in finance. However, in order to protect our rights and encourage business, this transformation must occur andt barriers (such as the partners and the billable hours models) must be taken down. Christina even called this technological transformation “an investment into the infrastructure of our society”.
Covid-19, by speeding up digitalisation by 5.3 years, has shown that there is potential for growth in law tech. Examples of the benefits of lawtech include optimising legal research, assessing case strength through data analytics, e-billing, document storage, electronic signatures, and cost and time estimations. Christina also told us about some of the current projects undertaken by LawtechUK including the Lawtech Sandbox, which helps legal start-ups scale up, and an SME dispute resolution tool, which runs test case estimates the outcome of litigation for recurrent issues SMEs face such small debts payments.
Our fifth and seventh speakers, Lisa Sewell (Managing Director at Dentons) and Shilpa Bhandarkar (Director of Innovation at Linklaters), also discussed the exponential growth of technology in the legal industry. For instance, CreateIQ, a smart Legal Contract creator at Linklaters, uses data to generate contracts at a much faster pace than human lawyers could and diminishes risk. Shilpa also underlined some of the issues that AI will raise, including the distribution of liability and the importance of good quality data. According to Lisa, the catalytic effect of Covid-19 will mainly be reflected by more open-mindness about trying new technologies, which is key if firms want to remain competitive as barriers to entry come down. As Darwin suggested, those who survive are not the best but the most adaptable.
Diversity in the legal industry
Christina Blacklaws also talked about gender diversity in the legal industry. 60% of new entries in the legal profession are women but only 31% of partners are women. Major concerns, according to research by the Law Society, include unconscious bias, unacceptable work-life balance at partner level and male-focused internal promotion systems. This creates a leadership issue because junior lawyers need senior role models. Solutions include access and mainstreaming of flexible working, mentorship and reverse mentorship programs, and engaging men in the debate.
Jat Bains, our third speaker and head of the restructuring and insolvency team at Macfarlanes, discussed the diversity initiatives currently in place at the firm. Last year, Macfarlanes focused on gender diversity by creating networks and a space to discuss the challenges women in the legal profession face. This year, the firms is focusing more on ethnic diversity through reverse mentorship schemes and discussions about microaggressions.
Barristers on International Law
Our second and sixth panellists were Philippe Sands QC and Rhodri Thompson QC. Philippe is a UCL International Law professor, barrister at Matrix Chambers, arbitrator at the International Centre for the Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID) and the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), and writer. Rhodri is an EU law and Competition law barrister also at Matrix Chambers, who acted for Gina Miller in the Brexit case (arguing that the triggering of article 50 should be approved by Parliament), which went all the way up to the Supreme Court.
Philippe, through his personal and professional life-story, told us about the current state of international law. He talked us through his journey from academia to writing books for a popular audience on international law; works such as Lawless World, which touches on the legality of the UK and US’s attack on Iraq, and Torture Team, which is about the Bush administration’s approval of 18 interrogation techniques to be used in Guantanamo. His recent work includes the book The Ratline and a recent ICC case where he argued, against Myanmar's Nobel Price winning leader Aung San Suu Kyi, that the apartheid-like treatment of Rohingyas constituted a genocide under international law. Lastly, Philippe emphasised how important these issues are in the present day; Brexit, Trump, and the rise of populism illustrate that the rule of law is facing tremendous challenges. Moreover, Philippe highlighted that, as lawyers, we will have a social function to remain independent and preserve the rule of law.
Rhodri discussed the future of the bar in a digitalised world, as well as the founding of Matrix Chambers in 2000. Matrix was the first chambers to be founded as a completely new entity by a group of people who felt that the bar needed to move forward with the ongoing constitutional change at the time (the implementation of the Human Rights Act in the UK) and the internationalisation of law. Matrix focuses on international criminal law, Human Rights law and EU law; it also has an office in Geneva, and many of its members are also academics. Rhodri also briefly discussed his work in the article 167 case and EU competition law in relation to technology and the new digital economy.
How do you pass a law?
The fourth panel of the Conference was composed of Gina Martin and her lawyer, Ryan Whelan. Gina was the activist behind the campaign to make up-skirting a criminal offence, which was finally successful with the passing of a 2019 bill. Gina and Ryan’s strategy relied on borrowing Scottish law and lobbying along party lines, as well as having an important media presence through interviews and social media. They also shared with us the bill's main achievements: there have been around 50 convictions where several offenders were repeated sexual offenders, showing that upskirting is part of rape culture, and that it should not be normalised as a joke. Gina and Ryan also discussed the interaction between law and culture, and the fact that law often lags behind societal change because there is always the risk of unintended consequences when legislators move ahead of society.
Overall, the Conference was very insightful as it explored a range of topical issues in the legal industry and exposed a variety of career paths in law. I will definitely attend next year’s Conference!