Narrative law: the future in the age of AI?

Narrative medicine is gaining a following in medical schools, with Columbia now offering a Masters degree in the subject. Narrative medicine has been described as using “the ability to acknowledge, absorb, interpret, and act on the stories and plights of others” to enable doctors to ellicit, understand, and interpret their patient’s stories about their life as well as their illness. Better listening and interpretative skills will lead to better diagnosis and treatment.

My grandparents would not understand or see the need for the practice. Their family doctor knew the family history and circumstances of every patient simply by being part of the community. Nor did those doctors have the diagnostic tools available today , so were reliant on interpreting not just what the patient was telling them, but what they observed, heard around town and knew of the family history.

My grandfather and father were both lawyers in a provincial town. They both knew more about the circumstances of their clients than their clients ever told them. I’m sure they both knew when to expect a visit from a client because they had already heard about the circumstance leading to the visit, such as a death in the family, business purchase, or recent accident.  Both were David Maister’s Trusted Advisors ever before he coined the term.

I studied medicine for a couple of years before transferring to law and at the time was bemused by the proportion of incredibly smart kids who were studying with me, but were incapable of communicating with the other students.  It was a topic of discussion as to how these students would ever be able to extract a medical history from a patient.

Law schools need to offer something similar.  I have spent more than 25 years dealing with clients with issues about their lawyers, and the vast majority of the time the problem stem from a failure to communicate.  Companies talk about the “Institutional knowledge” – the knowledge of the corporate history which is often given as a reason not to change law firms.  But one of the problems for clients nowadays, where the leveraged model requires delegation and multiple lawyers working on a matter, is that institutional knowledge is not passed on to others in the firm.  The partner knows the history or backstory for the work, but does not pass that onto the more junior lawyer, who then does not have the full context for the advice.

In conducting training in Legal Project Management, one of the aspects we highlight is defining what “done” looks like.  This involves understanding what the client sees as acceptable outcomes, which in turn involves an understanding of the backstory – the reason the work is being undertaken, who the relevant stakeholders are, any relevant “institutional knowledge”, and how the client defines value.  All of these can only be ascertained through narrative listening.  With all the talk of AI reducing legal jobs in the future, perhaps Narrative Law will help create a truly valuable legal role which can only be undertaken by a human?

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