• Keynote Speaker Professor Richard Susskind OBE, author, speaker and independent adviser to professional firms and to national governments
  • Moderator Richard Hoyle, Vice-Chair of the Young Barristers’ Committee, Essex Court Chambers
  • Speakers Richard Atkins QC, Vice-Chair Elect of the General Council of the Bar, Leader of the Midland Circuit, St Philips Chambers; Francis Fitzgibbon QC, Previous Chair of Criminal Bar Association, Doughty Street Chambers; Andrew Langdon QC, Chair of the General Council of the Bar, Guildhall Chambers; Amanda Tipples QC, Chair of the Chancery Bar Association, Maitland Chambers

A message of hope tinged with caution was delivered during the opening keynote speech to the Young Bar and Bar Conference by Young Barristers’ Committee Chair Duncan McCombe. Delegates were informed that whilst there are many at the Young Bar that have a strong sense of pride in our profession, the Young Bar is shrinking at a disturbing rate. The number of barristers under five years’ Call shrank 30% from 2005-2015. The issue of retention and the connected issue of remuneration, particularly for publicly funded work, pose a threat to the Young Bar.

However, there was also good news that the Young Bar, and the Bar more generally, is in prime position to take advantage of the rise of the gig economy which has in part been brought about by technological advances and has seen the advent of companies such as Uber. Barristers are ideally positioned to provide unbundled, bespoke, high quality legal services whilst harnessing technological advances, whether in the form of discrete advice or specialist advocacy.

The Young Bar Conference’s keynote was delivered by Professor Susskind, IT adviser to the Lord Chief Justice and author of ‘Tomorrow’s Lawyers’ and ‘The End of Lawyers?’. Professor Susskind explained that programs currently exist in the field of intellectual property (IP) which can predict the outcome of patent cases with much greater accuracy than senior highly experienced IP practitioners. These programmes are not exercising judgment in the same manner as a natural person. They simply use masses of data to make a statistical analysis of the most likely outcome of a case.

Professor Susskind informed delegates that legal technology could be used to improve access to justice for those who required a legal resolution but that currently do not make use of the justice system at all. This begs the question whether greater digitisation of aspects of the justice system would make those who do not currently use the justice system any more inclined to do so. Considering that individuals often come to the justice system at pivotal junctures in their lives, would a faceless screen and a decision rendered by an algorithm satisfy their needs?

A delegate queried whether justice can be done by software. Justice is often more than the verdict or the judgment of a court. It is also about having the opportunity to be heard, the opportunity to be fearlessly represented by an expert advocate and the opportunity to have matters ventilated in an open forum. Perhaps justice itself is something so fundamentally and inherently human in nature that no technology can be used to provide it. That does not mean to say that justice cannot be facilitated by technology, and that appeared to be Professor Susskind’s view. He presented himself as a policy adviser who had an interest in assessing how technology may lead to greater access to justice. He considered that the role of specialist advocates, particularly in complex cases, would remain for some time to come. However, he explained that the Young Bar face a choice of whether to compete with legal technology or whether to embrace and develop legal technology.

Whilst some may see technology as a threat, a majority of those in attendance at the Young Bar keynote (at least those that responded to the live interactive survey), see it as an opportunity. The Bar has survived innumerable and often significant changes in the past. It is hoped that it will continue to do so. As Lady Justice Hallett explained during the Bar Conference opening address, having barristers ie highly skilled specialist advocates, is a good idea and you cannot keep a good idea down.