AALS 2017 Plenary Address

Microsoft President Brad Smith Looks to the Future of Legal Education in AALS Plenary Address


By Barbara Elenbaas


Microsoft President and CLO Brad Smith at the 2017 AALS Annual Meeting

Microsoft President and CLO Brad Smith at the 2017 AALS Annual Meeting

Brad Smith, President and Chief Legal Officer of Microsoft, Inc., delivered the plenary address “Preparing a Diverse Profession to Serve a Diverse World” at the 2017 AALS Annual Meeting and discussed what it means to be a lawyer and a legal educator today in the United States.

Smith opened with a synopsis of the current climate for legal education. “I want to begin by acknowledging something that is self-evident to everyone in this room: it is and has been a challenging decade,” he said. “[It is a] critical time for the law, and therefore a vital time for our law schools.”

Smith spoke from his unique perspective as an executive using his legal background to work within the technology industry. As part of a broad overview of the possible future of the legal profession, he discussed what the country and economy might demand from lawyers and suggested several ways in which law schools are critical to delivering on those demands.

What is Happening to the Law?

Smith drew strong parallels between the development of cross-country railroads and the advent of the internet age. Both, he claimed, are touchstones for how technology impacts the law and the evolution of the legal profession.

As with railroads and their wide-ranging effects on trade and other areas of law, there are now legal fields that did not exist in the 1980s thanks to computers and technology, Smith pointed out. Privacy law, internet security, artificial intelligence, and many others, have grown around or significantly changed because of technological advances. Computing, Smith argued, is the fourth industrial revolution.

“What does this mean for lawyers and law students?” Smith asked. “It means that being a lawyer is not only about studying decisions of the past. It means that one must discern and develop some ability to predict where law goes in the future.”

The law is constantly changing both in its interpretation and its application. Demonstrating flexibility to adapt, Smith argued, is what it takes to be a lawyer in a time of vast technological change.

What Does this Mean for Legal Practice?

In practical terms, much concern regarding technology’s effect on lawyers has been focused on technology eliminating jobs within the legal field. Instead, Smith said, what one might see at law firms is that computing does not automate entire jobs. It automates tasks.

Automation begins with the lowest-level tasks and adds increasingly advanced tasks. This has played out first, Smith said, both with legal secretaries and paralegals. He noted that technology “is not just the way we connect with each other, which is often important. It’s the way we get things done.”

Today, a computer can do much of what a paralegal did a decade ago. Anything it cannot handle through automation, it delegates to a paralegal or lawyer when it reaches the point at which a human must take it over.

This has resulted, he said, in fewer—but also more satisfied—paralegals who are tasked with much more interesting job duties. While a single paralegal may now be assigned 10 or more lawyers, they are also able to use their judgment and creativity on much higher-level tasks.

This could also be the future for lawyers themselves. “I think we have to be prepared for the possibility that we will live in a nation that needs fewer lawyers,” Smith posited, and that there are fewer law school applicants because there are fewer jobs that require a law degree. That means lawyers will need to master new skills, including technical skills, as has been the case since the 1980s.

As technology advances and the legal field changes, Smith said, the industry will require that every stage of a lawyer’s career be reevaluated, including the skills they learn during legal education, what they emerge and enter the job market with, and what they continue to learn each year. More and more, lawyers will need to master soft skills.

“We must think about what it will take to build the legal workforce needed for the future,” Smith said. He added that all of this must be taken into consideration alongside the reality that the very role of a lawyer in society is changing and will continue to change.

What Does it Mean for the Role of Lawyers and Law Schools?

“The great truth that I feel the world is missing,” according to Smith, “…is this: lawyers have seldom been more important than they are today. This is the message we need, collectively, to take to the nation’s college students, high school students, and the public at large.”

Lawyers, Smith said, are more important than ever because we live in an era where all issues are global issues—even if the law of a nation technically stops at its border. And beyond the borders of the United States, the rule of law is far from healthy on a global basis.

Smith also touched on the necessity of diversifying the legal profession, saying “I believe diversity is an absolute imperative for our profession. We exist…to serve the nation. The nation deserves a legal profession as diverse as the people we serve. That is not the case today.”

He emphasized that lawyers “happen to work in the least diverse profession in the nation when it comes to African Americans and Latinos.” He encouraged law schools to increase the level of representation in these populations until it matches the level of representation in bachelor’s degree programs. He also suggested schools work with law firms and the broader legal community to come up with ways for organizations to retain women lawyers.

While the U.S. happens to have more lawyers than it needs according to Smith, he suggested that the world has nowhere near the number of lawyers required. Legal educators should think about their contributions to the rule of law on a global basis.

He pointed out the global disparity in access to justice, blaming the unequal supply and demand for lawyers. “The great hope for access to justice is technology,” he said, giving several examples including the use of Skype to eliminate the need for children in Northern California to travel long distances to attend very brief court hearings.

Finally, he stressed that U.S. lawyers must realize the recent sharp turn of events in the political landscape is not a phenomenon unique to our nation, but is one part of a wave of “new nationalism” that also swept Europe and Asia during 2016. “Around the world, there is a questioning of the era of global expansion and technological change that has defined our lives…we have a responsibility to think about what this means for the role of lawyers and law schools.”

As the nation is more polarized than ever before, lawyers and law schools have a unique opportunity to impress upon the public the importance of a functioning rule of law to a functioning country. Smith argued that the law must be seen as an integral part of infrastructure, along with physical roads and bridges.

“We readily appreciate, in this country and around the world, that a healthy rule of law has, as an indispensable element, the role of an independent judiciary.” He maintained that it falls upon lawyers, law schools, and legal educators to defend and uphold that role.

There are constitutional rights that affect and govern every part of life and every part of business, and who, Smith challenged, will stand up for them if not legal educators? In a divided country that nevertheless shares an appreciation for the importance of democracy and a fundamental commitment to a sense of fairness and justice, he said, “there can still be no justice without law and no law without lawyers. And there will be no lawyers without law schools.”

Speaking directly to the law faculty and deans in the audience, Smith concluded, “the future of our country is in your hands.”

Watch Brad Smith’s talk during the AALS plenary session:

Watch the panel discussion: