Chinese New Year is fast approaching – 2018 is the year of the earth dog, the first since 1958. Those of us born in an earth dog year are deemed to be ethical, communicative, responsible and serious in the workplace – some good characteristics to have as a lawyer! As we look forward to this year’s celebrations on February 18th, we note that China’s legal tech is taking some huge leaps forward. The language barrier has meant that China has perhaps not been given fair props in western media coverage of China’s legal tech scene, but the message is becoming clear that there are some very interesting developments occurring.

How China is Riding the Legal Tech Wave

China’s legal sector is fast growing and thus comparatively young, compared to the culture of western law corporations. The culture at large has more readily embraced technological advances in robotics and smart tech in everyday life and infrastructure, from the all-encompassing WeChat social media platform which also facilitates payments, to travel infrastructure and smarthome technology. AI is not a niche interest or a far-off future development coming into the fore – it has already played a defining role in Chinese society.

AI and legal tech is already starting to play a significant role in courtrooms, with speech recognition technology recording court proceedings more accurately and efficiently. Virtual courts, online legal assistance for court users, two way translations systems and e-filing for documents all feature at the West Lake District People’s Court of Hangzhou. Meanwhile, blockchain technology is being used to provide electronic evidence to shape verdicts: instead of relying on a single judges’ interpretation of the law, AI-provided answers to specific questions and clarifications relating to the case can help to disperse uncertainty in judgement.

Embracing this overall openness, AI and technology companies and even educational institutions are taking unprecedented steps towards making legal services the most technologically advanced of all chinese industries – recognising the need for greater advancement not just for those working in the sector, but for society at large.

One recent story we took interest in here at The Attic was the plan for Peking University Law School to partner with cloud-based big data analytics and AI solutions provider Gridsum to launch a research centre to further examine possibilities for AI in China’s legal system. It is unlike any partnership we have yet to see here in the UK. “The combination of Peking University’s highly experienced legal community and our cutting-edge AI and big data technology will directly benefit the development and application of AI across China’s judicial system” said Guosheng Qi, CEO of Gridsum in a statement. Working in close partnership with Peking University Law School and the Legal AI Lab is another step in Gridsum’s broader strategy of developing a comprehensive suite of legal solutions targeting courts, prosecutors, law firms and others within the judicial ecosystem. The rollout of Gridsum’s legal services product suite is accelerating within China’s court system.

Another company that is breaking new ground in Chinese legal tech is Legal Miner. Founded in 2015, its products combine data mining and legal analytics expertise to ‘reveal the enigmatic Chinese decisions in an extensive, systematic and visual manner’. The data can be applied to dispute resolution, strategy solutions and business risk assessments. People are still very much at the core of the technology – a team of legal and technology experts continually develop the advanced analytics system, and a team of local and global analysts are picked to meet each client’s unique case demands. The technology has a global focus, aiming to make the Chinese legal system more transparent and allow companies to do business in the country with greater ease.

There is tech-forward thinking in the judiciary too. Reporting back from his visit to China in August, Richard Susskind OBE spoke highly of Judge He Fan, who in his view appeared to be leading thinking behind court reform in China. At the age of just 39, Judge He is a Supreme Court Justice, and a prolific author, social media user and blogger. Hangzhou Judge Chen Liaomin, deputy President of West Lake Court is also deserving of a mention for being the leading judicial force behind the court’s advancement in technology. Judge Chen hosted the successful trialling of Online Dispute Resolution in her court. The ODR platform, which integrates big data and Internet Plus into legal mediation, has been praised for its cost-effectiveness, efficiency, agility and openness.

What We Can Learn from China’s Approach to Legal Tech

There is a broad sense of optimism regarding AI and legal tech right across the Chinese legal industry, perhaps more so than we have seen in Europe, or indeed, in other parts of Asia. A report from noted that attendees at the China Legal+Technology New Champions Annual Convention were a diverse mix of legal professionals – both men and women – from in-house departments to major firms, judiciary and government organisations, all with the unified goal of applying more AI to solve problems and propel the legal sector forward.

It’s clear that Chinese legal industry very much views AI as a transformative force, with the central idea is very much about sharing the workload of human lawyers. Conversations around AI tend to come from the angle of how to overcome the threat it poses to human job roles and future employment. In China, the advancement of AI is seen as liberation; freeing people from the more mundane, repetitive and time-consuming tasks of a role, allowing them to focus on the more sophisticated aspects, or broaden their scope and take on more work.

A more contentious point is the notion that greater access to legal technology and a more advanced legal sector could lead to the advancement of human rights in the country. This could help to address concerns that often press on the conscious of global organisations that see the need to maintain a dialogue of opportunity with the country. For human rights lawyers, to be able to focus more time on their tactical approach in an increased number of cases may mean not just more wins, but furthering the push towards democracy and constitutional governance.

For many law companies, the future of legal tech could mean the difference between survival and collapse, the ability to ensure workplace well-being for lawyers, and to retain and develop talent by focusing on softer, human qualities and emotional intelligence. While the risks involved in AI and more automated services is a conversation worth having, we can learn from China’s legal industry to embrace change and adapt.