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Careers in justice: key skills for today’s lawyers

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Lawyer in courtroom wearing occulus rift

A contemporary law graduate must balance tradition with technology, think both analytically and creatively; and demonstrate empathy and commitment in their interactions with people.

The legal profession, steeped in tradition and guided by centuries of jurisprudence, stands at the precipice of a technological revolution. With advancements in artificial intelligence, eDiscovery tools and other disruptive technologies, careers in justice are undergoing significant transformation.

Given the potential for disruption, those considering a career in law may wonder: what key skills are needed in this evolving landscape? And what role remains for human lawyers in a world increasingly influenced by innovations in legal technology?

In an interview with the Dean and Head of the Law School at Curtin University, Professor Robert Cunningham, we explored what it means to become a lawyer, discussed the essential skills required by today’s legal professionals, and examined the impact of emerging technologies on the legal industry. Professor Cunningham highlighted how Curtin’s innovative approach to legal education – through its Bachelor of Laws degree and Practical Legal Training – produces law graduates with three critical attributes: high emotional intelligence, a global outlook and a strong awareness of the rule of law.

Image: Professor Robert Cunningham

What does it mean to become a lawyer?

“Law is a social science. It was one of the earlier disciplines that made its way into the university setting, so if we go back to the University of Bologna in the 10th or 11th century, we had three callings: medicine, law and priesthood. The professionalisation of law means the legal profession has a monopoly over the delivery of legal services – such that you can’t call yourself a lawyer unless you ‘join’ the profession. When you create a monopoly, you need to be able to justify it. And I would say the legal profession is underpinned by three justifications.

“The first is that lawyers should hold themselves out as having a special skill in learning in the law. Practising law, either directly or indirectly, requires a dedication to continually refining and improving your understanding of the nuances the law presents. There are no short-cuts. As a consummate legal professional, you must never stop studying and never stop practising. Legal practice is just that – a practice. It is often said that ‘practice makes perfect’ but this is only true if the practice itself is perfect. While few of us attain such great heights, this should not stop us from trying.

“The second justification is to subscribe to an ethical framework – guiding principles that must be followed to maintain your legal practising certificate. We can debate endlessly about what is right and wrong, yet most of us know when we are violating personal or social ethical norms. Finding ways to militate against the lowest common denominator of humanness, and to rise above, is as much a story about spiritual development as it is about following a set of predetermined rules or an ethical framework.

“The third is a dedication to the public interest. Being a lawyer isn’t just about private benefit, it’s also about public contribution and that’s why things like pro bono [for the public good] have been with the profession since the beginning, that is, finding ways to give back to the community through providing free or subsidised legal services.”

Pro bono work is indeed admirable. How significant is it in the profession today?

The law often seeks to mediate between private and public interests, whether we reflect upon the social structures of First Nations Peoples or that of Roman law, every society throughout history has developed methods of mediating between private and public interests. Understanding what it means to be human and imagining society from a normative perspective (i.e. how things should be rather than simply how they are) is why the study of law requires an understanding of both the individual and society.

“With the legal profession, those three points are all important. You can take the special skill in learning as a given in a way, but subscribing to an ethical framework and dedicating yourself to the public interest are not always underscored. But it’s really very important when it comes to calling yourself a lawyer is that you take all those three aspects of being a professional very seriously.”

A lawyer advising a client.

What essential skills do law graduates need to succeed in the legal profession?

“Within the legal profession there are many fine-grained options. You could be a solicitor on the one hand versus a barrister on the other, and both of those different endeavours have different skill sets and different functions. But there are commonalities.

“As a legal professional in any field, you’ll use both the left and the right side of your brain. Like playing chess or like playing music or learning a language, there’s a requirement for both the analytical and creative aspects.”

How do these analytical and evaluative aspects play out in legal practice?

“For anyone who has had exposure to the legal system, you’ll often find there are a lot of close calls and contingencies. Being involved with the law can be ‘war by other means’, which is to say there could be an intractable conflict and the law is tasked with seeking to resolve that conflict – and there’ll often be winners and losers. If you make decision A, then the consequences will be X. If you make decision B, the consequences might be Y.”

That sounds quite complex. How do lawyers navigate these contingencies?

“Part of developing professionally also means developing yourself as a human being. The legal profession is inherently a human-based profession, and part of that story is developing your emotional intelligence, so you can relate to other people. We know from employers and from research that soft skills are becoming increasingly important, and emotional intelligence is very much part of that.

“Lawyers must have compassion for others when asked to engage with legal problems, because when people come in touch with the law, they’ll often be stressed – not just from the uncertainty, but also from the cost. They may have tried a whole bunch of other things prior to contacting you, and so they might be worn out and exhausted right from day one of you dealing with them as a lawyer. You need to have a level of sympathy or empathy for them to act in their best interest.”

It must be challenging to manage such situations. How do lawyers maintain their own wellbeing while supporting their clients?

“Beyond these aspects, when pursuing a career, it is also critical to follow your own interests. Every facet of life has a legal aspect – the law does not exist in a social vacuum. The best lawyers have a well-rounded knowledge of the world and maintain an interest in matters outside of the law, which preserves their perspective.

“It’s about finding a balance and ensuring that you remain engaged and passionate about what you do, both within and outside of the legal field.

“And, in searching for the right livelihood, stay human. As an added bonus, it will give you a comparative advantage over artificial intelligence! (More on that later).”

Students practice in Curtin's Jeanette Hacket Moot Court facility.

Image: Law students practice in Curtin University’s Jeanette Hacket Moot Court facility in Perth.

What aspects of Curtin’s law program give students confidence working with real legal issues and challenges?

“We embed three working principles within our activities in our Bachelor of Laws.

“The first is to make sure we are integrating the higher education experience with professional practice. The Curtin Law School is located in Perth’s central business district, and more specifically within Perth’s legal precinct, allowing students to undertake some of their studies in close proximity to Perth’s Law Courts, and build practical professional legal skills in our in-house legal clinic (John Curtin Law Clinic) where they meet with and prepare advice for small business clients.”

How do these practical experiences benefit the students?

“We do what we can to develop those soft skills like emotional intelligence – giving students assessments that are authentic, for example. It might be client interviews. It might be some form of mooting at our Moot Court facility or court advocacy; or it might be putting them in positions they’ll find themselves in when they are indeed practising.

“The second working principle is about ensuring the future lawyer is a global lawyer. It’s important we give students an international perspective as they go through the course. While the law is generally established through domestic political processes, we encounter international law in many of the issues we confront from a humanity point of view – climate change being an example.”

How does Curtin’s law program incorporate international perspectives?

“Each year, our students have the opportunity to travel to Belgium as part of the Curtin at Ghent summer law program, where they’ll learn international law for one month on an academic program, supplemented with excursions to the European Commission and the north of France, to learn a bit more about World War One and World War Two history.

“And the third working principle is ensuring students come away from our degree with a deep appreciation for the rule of law. What do I mean by the rule of law? Well, it’s often used for shorthand that everyone is equal before the law. But it means more than that.”

Can you explain more about what the rule of law entails? And how do you instil this appreciation in your students?

“It means ensuring there are checks and balances on the use of power. It means we respect certain fundamentals like ‘innocent until proven guilty’. It means we respect certain rights like the right to assemble, freedom of speech and an independent judiciary. So, in other words, the rule of law is a multilayered concept.

“And by virtue of students appreciating what the rule of law is, they come to understand the social role that law plays. Law is not just about the individual, it’s also about society – which seems like an obvious point but it’s a very important point, and one that we that we take very seriously.”

Curtin law students in Murray Street, Perth.

What role does practical legal training play in Curtin’s law program?

“To be admitted into the Supreme Court of WA, you first need to have a law degree, but you also need to have completed a Graduate Diploma in Legal Practice or equivalent. Curtin Law School is unique in WA for offering both these qualifications as a complete pathway.”

That sounds comprehensive. How does Curtin ensure these qualifications prepare students for their legal careers?

“In our graduate diploma, students have the opportunity to integrate with the Murray Chambers collaboration, so we focus the attention on practical legal training in that space and building a bridge between the legal profession and legal studies. Murray Chambers has about 20 barristers that Curtin Law School can rely upon to build that bridge. Students can then further their legal skills in a range of essential areas including advocacy, cross-cultural communication, dispute resolution, drafting legal documents and legal interviewing, and complete a placement with the John Curtin Law Clinic.

“Because the Law School is based within a university, we also have the advantage of being able to leverage colleagues across the university from different disciplines to supplement our students’ legal training. For example, we leveraged forensic scientists within Curtin University to deliver lectures on the mechanics of fingerprinting.”

AI image of scales flanked by a human head and AI.

Speaking of fingerprinting, how will the legal profession change in the face of new technologies, such as those used for discovery, or recreating crime scenes? And how will it change the way lawyers conduct their research?

“That’s a good question. While AI and other advancements pose new challenges, they also offer opportunities. While we don’t know where the technology is going, it’s clear from generative AI and other developments that the machine will be able to do many things that human beings are doing. But the human element, particularly the blend of analytical and creative thinking, will continue to provide a comparative advantage over machines.”

Could you elaborate on the comparative advantage that humans have over machines?

“We often think of technology as a modern-day concept, but if we think about something like a fence, it’s been around for many hundreds, if not thousands, of years. A fence delineates between one person’s property and another person’s property. And we can take that concept and think about how it might apply in the digital age, for example, where property might not be physical – it might be intellectual property. And how technology is then used to delineate between what people can do and what they cannot do in an online or digital space?”

How do you see this playing out in practical legal scenarios?

“AI is a tool, and it’s essential to understand its role and limitations. It’s not accurate, but we must understand that the models we’re dealing with are often well in the rear vision mirror. But the whole key point with generative AI is that it does learn; it’s changing and evolving over time.”

How do legal practitioners currently use AI in their work?

“I’ve had conversations with legal practitioners who have indicated they’ve made use of AI at least 300 times over the past 12 months to improve or create cross-checks or to provide ideas in the same way that legal clerks have played that function since time immemorial.

“But its capabilities as a tool go back to the lawyer’s ability for critical evaluation or critical analysis. Any good lawyer will look at a piece of evidence or a so-called fact, or a piece of information and ask themselves whether it can be defended and validated. If the answer is ‘no’, or if the answer is, ‘I’m not sure’, then further work is required to make those determinations.

“And so, in my view, there will always be a role for the human to cross-check or oversee any work or research or conclusions that a machine might come up with. Provided you understand why you’re using it, then it’s just another tool in the toolkit of a profession.

Do you see the role of AI expanding in the future, and if so, how might that impact legal education and practice?

“Absolutely. As AI continues to evolve, legal education will need to adapt to ensure that future lawyers are proficient in using these technologies while maintaining their critical thinking and evaluative skills.”

Scales superimposed onto a map of the world.

AI tools can pick up fake information and assume it’s real. With the necessity for authenticity within the law, how can today’s lawyers protect the integrity of the information supply chain?

“One of my research areas relates to protecting the integrity of the information environment. If you’re moving into a world where AI is generating the raw material, which then AI is relying upon, you can quickly lean into a garbage in, garbage out scenario, where there’s a lack of integrity in the supply chain of information.”

That sounds challenging. How do we ensure the integrity of the information being generated?

“The truth will always be contested, but when people are choosing their own facts, it can become a very dangerous world. And if you throw AI into the mix along with the polarisation of views being generated by social media algorithms, it becomes a very risky information environment and creates uncertain foundations for our future. And so, protecting the integrity of the information supply chain is very important, and universities and journalists both have a role to play.”

How can we all contribute to this protection?

“The way I’ve come at it, is to think about the information environment in the same way we thought about the physical environment in the 1950s and 60s. At that time, the contemporary environmental movement started to draw links between biologic biodiversity issues in the Amazon, climate change issues that were emerging, and pollution in the river. There were a whole bunch of discrete issues or problems, but they weren’t necessarily conceptualised under the one umbrella.

“But what happened was that the movement raised the profile of the environment as a contemporary concept, and it was only then we were able to start preserving the physical environment by establishing environmental law frameworks that sought to look at these issues in a holistic way rather than piecemeal.

“We need to take some of those ideas and apply them in 2024 – to the world of information. My plea in my research is how we might develop more holistic ways of regulating the information environment as we move deeper into the digital landscape.”

What specific areas need to be addressed to improve the information environment?

“We need to think about things like privacy violation, disinformation, misinformation. We need to go back to the source and see what’s the actual cause of these problems and when we do that, we may realise the cause may be similar from one issue to the next. Privacy violation and misinformation might be flowing from algorithms within social media, or the way in which big tech might be abusing its economic power, for example.

“Once you start drawing the link between different fields or disciplines, and there’s some commonality, that’s where you see the emergence of political movements and responses.”

It’s encouraging to see such interdisciplinary approaches. How is this being addressed in Curtin’s law program?

“It’s always going to be a work in progress, but these are things we grapple with in the Bachelor of Laws at Curtin. On our Ghent summer law program, I’ll be teaching a subject called information governance and emerging technologies.”

That sounds like an essential course for today’s digital age. How do students respond to this subject?

“Students find it incredibly relevant and engaging, as it directly pertains to the challenges they will face in their future legal careers. The point is to think about information governance in all of its facets and to make connections between privacy and misinformation (as I have been alluding to); and also to understand the role that technological architecture is likely to play in future scenarios.

“The thinking that underpins these subject areas can be traced back to philosophers like Jeremy Bentham, whose idea of the panopticon – in essence, a form of prison architecture where one guard can keep watch on multiple prisoners simultaneously – helped to frame the conversation around just how differently people behave when they believe they are being watched. How might this idea that being watched influences a person’s actions apply now in the 21st century – an era where the minutiae of day-to-day life are kept and stored as a unique ‘digital footprint’?

“We also engage in legal science fiction as part of this story. Imagining different futures and contemplating how the law might interact with these futures. An important part of studying law is developing skills of imagination so that we can speculate on how things should be – and what the role of law might be in facilitating that future.”

A gavel and a law book on a table in a law library.

And, lastly, what’s your favourite part of being a lawyer?

“For me, it’s about combining the analytical and creative aspects of the brain, helping people and making a meaningful contribution. It’s also thinking about the social dimensions of the law and how we might leverage law to create a more fair and just society, which might sound aspirational, but if we don’t hold those aspirations, then I think, well, what’s the point?”

That’s a wonderful perspective. How do you encourage your students to maintain this vision in their future careers?

“I try to inspire them to always strive for fairness and justice in their interaction with the law, reminding them of the significant impact they can have on society. To study and practice law is a privilege, so I try and remind student to leverage that privilege not just for their own benefit, but for the benefit of all.

“It is also important for students to remain connected to what they care about and to find ways of building a bridge between those things and their interaction with the law. Change is the only constant, and the law will continue to evolve. But law is not going away anytime soon – regardless of technological advancements. As in life, lawyers must continue to evolve, and the younger generations are perfectly positioned to lead this evolution.”

Are you interested in a law career?

To find out more about Curtin University’s Bachelor of Laws or Graduate Diploma in Legal Practice, visit our study pages, see information on how to apply and contact our Future Students Team on 1300 222 888 for help and advice.

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