Jason Barnwell is looking to apply Microsoft's technologies to his legal team's work, in an approach he calls 'modern legal.'
Jason Barnwell, Microsoft’s assistant general counsel for modern legal, said he felt like “a kid in a toy store that has all the toys” when he arrived at the technology company in 2010.
In his current position, Barnwell applies the skills he learned in his training as both an attorney and a software engineer to building the future of the practice of law, which he said means redesigning how we work “to optimize how we apply our scarcest resource — human attention — and augment that with machines.”
“Law must evolve to serve society,” Barnwell said. “We will not be able to serve our business with conventional approaches because human resources alone will not be adequate.”
Here, he discusses his role, whether he thinks AI will replace lawyers and how the practice of law might be different for the youngest members of his legal team when they take the helm. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
You’re in charge of strategizing for the future for Microsoft’s legal team. What’s the hardest part of this job for you?
Specifically my role is focused on how we will take the tools, the technologies, the platforms that Microsoft makes and apply them to how we will practice in the future to build up an approach that we call modern legal.
It is really thinking about what the culture is that we want to build for ourselves so that we have our people reskilling themselves, embracing these tools, and then the specific application of those tools to our work so that we have a more modern experience that allows us to keep up with an accelerating business.
What do you mean by modern legal? Is it a new term that you’ve been using?
I’d say it’s newish.
It represents a general shift in how we are doing some things across our corporate functions, where we’re really trying to make a concerted effort to look for opportunities to apply our technologies to our work — that’s in legal, that’s in finance, that’s in HR.
And then to the extent we can, we’re also trying to create stories that are shareable with our customers so that we can help them see this is how we use the things that we make to make our work more effective.
Would you say that getting other lawyers on board with your innovative ideas is a challenging part of your job?
It is the hardest part of the job. It’s also the most interesting and most satisfying.
The scarcest thing we have is human attention. We have all the [computing power] in the world, but the scarcest and rarest thing we have is really talented folks.
The game that we’re playing here is, how do we maximize the impact that we get from that scarce thing that we have? We’re going to find ways to have the humans be supported by the machines so that they’re focusing more of their time and attention on the things that really need human input, where we need creativity, where we need judgment, where we need empathy — the things that humans can do that machines just can’t touch.
I don’t think that it makes people’s jobs more delightful to have them dealing with drudgery. We need to do everything we can to take that away and put that on the machines.
Will AI replace lawyers? Will that ever happen?
In my lifetime, I don’t think so, because we’re just not at a place where we’re anywhere close to general intelligence. Almost all of the technologies that we’re talking about when we talk about AI and advanced machine-learning applications are very domain specific, and they struggle to understand across domains, and that’s what humans are really good at.
I suspect that the application of technology will displace some jobs. They will move around within the space because that’s typically what happens whenever you have technology show up, whether it’s a telephone or electricity or an automobile. Labor will be displaced, but we’re still going to need people to do that work.
I think the real lesson for folks in the legal profession is, if you want to be a beneficiary of that displacement, you can acquire skills now that will prepare you to thrive in the environment that is to come.
Looking at the youngest members of your team at Microsoft, how do you think the practice of corporate law will be different for them when they reach the helm?
The people entering the profession now will have to be even more complete business people when they lead. They will have to become fluent in many of the tools and techniques that disciplines like finance use. This will mean being even more comfortable with data, numbers and processes.
Being data-driven will require them to go beyond understanding the information that comes to them. They will need to lead practices that develop and test hypotheses against the available data. They will need to apply design-thinking approaches to create solutions that live in the business substrate. They will have to operate using human-plus-machine-leverage models that we cannot imagine yet.
And they will need to build all this using an expanded empathy that helps them truly understand the customer’s job-to-be-done that creates value for the business.
Law is converging with business. The future skill set will reflect this as a more coherent set of capabilities in our legal professionals.
Are law firms doing enough to prepare for the future?
No, they are not. They have a lot of challenges structurally, culturally. I’m not convinced that they are designed structurally to be ready to compete for the investment opportunities that are activating now.
Does that matter to you?
I care a lot. We partner with our firms and we need them. There’s work that we’ll never be able to take in-house, either because it requires specialization or it requires a horizontal view on the realm.
The other thing is, many of them really do have our institutional memory, and that’s part of why they are invaluable to us.
We ask a lot of the firms that work with us. What they may not perceive is that our asks are a form of investment, that that’s how we’re showing that we think that they’re valuable and that we care about them. A lot of what we’re asking is really to help prepare them for not just our needs now, but what is to come.
It’s not success, from our perspective, to just let a pure Darwinian process happen. We don’t think that’s good for the ecosystem, we don’t think it’s good for our partners, and we don’t think it’s good for them, either.
It’s often said that lawyers are slow to adapt to change. What will it take for lawyers to change and adapt?
I would like for that change to be driven by an aspirational view on how we can practice, and turn that into an intrinsically motivated process. But I am a deep pragmatist. We may have to activate some people by helping them see they could be left behind if they do not learn, adapt and grow.
But I think we have to be really thoughtful about that because when you do that, you start hijacking people’s amygdalas and it really starts turning on their reptile brain. When people don’t feel safe, when they don’t feel comfortable, then they don’t create the most creative solutions. We as humans are not using our higher mammal brains when we are in that fight-or-flight mode.
It’s a very delicate balance of making sure that people are engaged and thinking there is a path to success for them, but with just enough of that fear to keep them focused on the issue.
--Editing by Martin Bricketto, Pamela Wilkinson and John Campbell.