UniCourt Influencer Q&A Series with Kevin P. Lee

UniCourt Influencer Q&A Series with Kevin P. Lee

American law schools are giant machines, steeped in tradition and in many cases, resistant to change. But that paradigm is shifting.

In the heart of downtown Raleigh, North Carolina, Campbell Law School is exploring innovation in legal education, innovation that will form intelligent, progressive lawyers who welcome – rather than resist – the ways that the legal profession is changing their roles and identities as lawyers.

Kevin P. Lee is at the helm of much of this innovation. A Professor of Law, legal scholar, ethicist, and frequent speaker, Lee has either led or co-led programs at Campbell Law that are sparking important conversations about the ways that technology is changing the law, and how lawyers can adapt to prepare for careers that are fulfilling, energizing, and which contribute meaningfully to their communities and to the profession as a whole.

We were fortunate to sit down with Professor Lee and learn more about his recent projects at Campbell Law.

UniCourt: Tell us your story. What is your background, and what initially sparked your interest in the intersection of technology and the law?

Kevin Lee: I have an odd background, I suppose. I got interested in legal technology because I was involved with studying and teaching the philosophy of law, or jurisprudence. There is a difference, but I tend to use the two terms interchangeably because the distinction is very subtle. Anyway, I teach classes in the field, and it was in that context that I noticed something that made me curious.

First, Oliver Wendel Holmes, Jr., wrote that the task of the lawyer is to predict the outcomes of legal matters for their clients. The question that underlies a good deal of the jurisprudence literature is what, if anything, makes law predictable? And, mostly, the answer has been authority.

Given that analysis, we have to wonder what it means that law can be predicted by looking at relations in data. That question has been in my mind for about five or six years. Over time, I’ve learned a lot about how predictions are made, and how technology is being deployed in legal practice today. It’s been fun.

UC: Share your experience with the Legal Hackers meetup in Raleigh, North Carolina. Why did you start the group? What issues are you collectively exploring?

KL: Tom Brooke started the North Carolina Legal Hackers in Charlotte, and I wanted to start a similar group here in the Triangle area. Legal Hackers is an international group of loosely affiliated chapters in more than 80 countries. The name “hackers” is intended to evoke the spirit of the early experimenters who try out new things and new ideas. They “hack” in the sense of fitting together parts to make something new. It’s like the French term, bricolage, which is translated today as do-it-yourself but has an older meaning of being handy or even entrepreneurial.

Our Campbell Legal Hackers group has had a slow start, as it has taken a while for it to fit into the Law School culture, which is quite traditional. Basically, Legal Hackers wants to challenge tradition, to find better ways to do things in a time of rapid change.

UC: Tell us a bit about the new legal design program you are spearheading at Campbell Law. What is design thinking, and how can it help lawyers improve the ways they deliver legal services?

KL: Oh, I can’t say I am spearheading anything. We have been truly blessed to have had the support of Professor Tsai Lu Liu, who is a Professor and Department Head of Graphic Design and Industrial Design at the outstanding College of Design. He is a wonderful teacher and designer, and I have learned so much from him.

What we are trying to achieve is an integration of design thinking into legal education. Design thinking is a human-centered way of solving problems that encourages the students to focus on the people they’re trying to serve. The goal, ultimately, is better lawyering and better internal processes. When they are lawyers, they will have experience creating a solution for a legal need. It’s our hope that the first question they’ll ask is, what do the human beings they’re trying to serve need in order to have a better experience? Their response can take many forms. Instead of simply focusing on working through legal analysis, they learn to think about how to serve clients better by focusing on how the client is actually experiencing the process of being represented. They are challenged to think about how that process can be improved. It is a unique experience for legal education that could be transformational.

UC: Why do you think it’s important for lawyers to continually innovate and to keep pace with changes in technology?

KL: Well, I guess the standard answer is to serve their clients better. That, in itself, is telling. Surely, lawyers need to provide the best possible service that they can deliver. But the experience of being a lawyer is not exhausted by supplying legal services. Applying a little design thinking, I want to ask, who are the other stakeholders in my student’s education? There are at least two other concerns.

First, and most obviously, the students have to care for themselves. They need to find their world satisfying. They should earn enough to justify the expense and effort. And, they should find the work to be meaningful.

They also need to play important roles in their communities as sources of legal information; as “public citizens.” To perform each of these functions well, they need to understand the world they live in. That means understanding how it is changing due to new technology. Most people, I think, do not have much of a grasp of how AI is changing their world. It is doing much more than the internet, and that changed so many things.

KL: Do you think that technology will ever completely supplant the human element in the legal profession? How can lawyers ensure their survival when so many of their traditional tasks are being automated?

KL: No. Well, probably not. It’s like asking if telephones could replace human communication. Of course not. But they have changed how we communicate. Similarly, the law exists because of the human element. What will change is how humans relate to each other and the state through technology as a mediator. Some aspects of society will change, new challenges will develop. But the human element will always be at the center.

What is enormously important is that the developers of legal technology keep that in mind. What is concerning is that there seems to be so little thinking going on right now, outside of groups like the IEEE, about the social and political meaning of the technologies that they are building. I don’t see that changing much. The structure of democracy is being changed by AI, particularly in the areas of privacy and in the use of AI by public administrators, which includes administrative agencies, law enforcement, and some judicial functions. While there are clearly some advantages to AI in these contexts, there are new challenges too. We need to be thinking about what it means, who gets to decide the goals of these systems, and how the systems get designed as human-centered systems. Since AI in law changes how humans relate to each other through the law, it needs to be designed for creating good societies. There is a lot to think about in that regard.

UC: What are some of your favorite sayings? Do you have any real-world examples of how you’ve seen those sayings come to life?

KL: My favorite saying is a quote from St. Augustine: “The world is a compressed pile of blessings.” On my best days, I see that everywhere.

UC: Why do you think lawyers should understand – and consider – alternative legal careers?

KL: There are two interrelated aspects here that are making the legal profession smaller, even as the demand for legal services is increasing. One reason is that technology can make lawyers more efficient so there are fewer jobs that require a Bar license. The other factor is that there are more competitors as tech-supported legal services firms take over some functions. For example, accounting firms are practicing law in places where they can. This trend poses several issues, some tech-related. For example, the partnership structure lacks incentives for long-term capital investment. Firms can’t compete in areas where expensive technology is most effective. So, there is greater competition among a variety of legal service providers.

UC: How do you think that the continued advancement in legal tech will facilitate increased access to justice?

KL: Access to justice is a hugely important topic. It is wrong to think of it only in terms of technology, but technology can play a part. This gets back to human-centered design. The access to justice issues need to be thought out in terms of redesigning the law to make it centered on human beings—on the people who need legal knowledge and advice but can’t afford it.

We need to redesign the law to solve that problem. It will involve technology. I think chatbots can play a part. But it will also involve thinking through the way law is encountered by real people in real encounters. What is the lived experience of a pro se litigant? What help can we give them to make that experience better? Change the way they learn about the law? Sure. Maybe a chatbot could help. But what can we do to make the courtroom less intimidating? How can we make the experience less traumatic? These are important questions. And, how we answer them will determine, I think, the quality of communities that we live in. So there is a lot at stake.

UC: What are your professional goals for the coming year? What projects are you working on? Are there any upcoming events or conferences in the legal tech space we should be aware of?

KL: This year, I am adding a new class on Law, Ethics, and Technology. I am really excited about that. I want to begin to teach students about the moral meaning of the way the world is changing, and the legal issues that are already beginning to develop. In addition to that, I am hoping to see Campbell expand its offering in the field. I think the Design class has been tremendous, and I’d like to see that continue to grow.

I am also really excited about the Legal Hackers group. We have a lot of things planned for the coming year that will be exciting. I can’t say much now, but there will be a CLE. And, I am hoping for a Hackathon. We might even have a conference of some sort. We want to work with the Bar and with some of the important legal tech companies in the area. So, it should be an exciting year.

Marrying Legal Tech with Human Ingenuity

Kevin Lee is one of many who are working hard to increase awareness of changes that will revolutionize the legal landscape in the next decade. As he stated, we need to “redesign the law” in order to make it more widely accessible and more useful. As we continue to explore the intersection of legal tech and human innovation, this will become more than a remote possibility.