Africa / The Fourth Industrial Revolution – Opportunity Or Threat For African Lawyers?


The Fourth Industrial Revolution is “characterized by a range of new technologies that are fusing the physical, digital and biological worlds, impacting all disciplines, economies and industries, even challenging ideas about what it means to be human.”. It involves the ubiquitous use of digital technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, the Internet of Things, autonomous vehicles, 3-D printing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, materials science, energy storage, and quantum computing. These digital technologies are changing  the business landscape and the world in general, so significantly and at such an accelerated pace that depending on whether Lawyers opt to be agile and astute, the transformation being brought about might be viewed as a threat to the status quo or an opportunity to expand into unchartered waters. Lawyers in Africa must question their readiness for this transformation, as key players in their economies and in national justice systems and must assess how they can equip themselves in a manner that this revolution will be an opening to be explored, because the transformation is inescapable. This article explores the issues that demand consideration in determining how African lawyers can positively and proactively respond to the wave that is the Fourth Industrial Revolution. It is suggested that the matter must be approached from two perspectives, the scope and nature of services that Lawyers can offer and the manner in which they are delivered.

Nature and Scope of Services

It may be that automation and digitization could potentially reduce human resource requirements and therefore threaten the existence of certain jobs, yet this must be viewed against the possibility that technology will spawn the innovation of new products and even new industries.  Digital technologies that characterize the Fourth Industrial Revolution will inevitably introduce new practice areas for Lawyers. These technologies are raising and will continue to raise, novel legal and ethical issues for lawyers to advise on and the Courts to decide upon, as shown below. 

Firstly, Legal practitioners have a window to venture into new industries by providing the necessary corporate support and legal advisory services to the developer and to undertake necessary legal risk assessments with a view to helping companies grow sustainably.   The scope of legal services has the potential to expand with old areas of practice being supplemented by the development of new areas of practice.

Secondly, the extent and pace of change will inevitably expose the inadequacies of current laws and regulations and will trigger legislative reform. Lawyers will have occasion to take part in the process of legislative reform and the drafting of industry specific laws that will encourage innovation and provide the necessary legal protections to developers and consumers. 

Thirdly, because disputes are a natural part of commerce and industry, lawyers will be called upon to represent parties in disputes that may occur in relation to, digital technologies and their implementation, and to thus make meaningful contribution to the jurisprudence.

Finally, and away from traditional legal services, the range of possible software and technology development opportunities are open to lawyers. Lawyers are well suited to providing valuable substantive and procedural law input during the conceptualisation and development of digital technologies specifically intended to service the legal services industry and can also take advantage of investing in technology firms.    

Delivery of Legal Services

Much has been said and written about the Fourth Industrial Revolution but it is clear that the key success factor to survive in this transforming world is the ability to adapt to the changing standards and requirements. In most cases this will involve drastic changes of how one does their work and new technologies. Like with all other industries and professions, digital technologies are and will be employed in the delivery of legal services. Once incorporated, digital technologies will enhance the delivery of legal services. 

Whilst recognizing that the core of legal services involves utilizing the human mind through legal reasoning and analysis, a wide range of work that is undertaken by lawyers and their assistants is routine and procedural and is capable, through the utilization of relevant technology, of being  performed with greater efficiency and potentially  better quality outcomes. It has been said that for just a fraction of the time and expense, AI could be used to conduct time-consuming research, reducing the burdens on courts and legal services and accelerating the judicial process.  If Law firms, In-house legal departments and even the Courts invest more in digital technologies, they can leverage the efficiency and enhancement associated with technology with the ultimate result being enhanced quality of services and improved access to justice at a cheaper cost. The possibilities are wide ranging. 

As a corollary, failing to embrace the Fourth Industrial Revolution could have a potentially serious impact on future incomes of law firms and could reduce their competitive edge. The legal system and lawyers might fail to support the growth opportunities that technology companies have. Similarly, In-house legal departments and ultimately companies could miss out on potential savings on their legal expenses. Digital technology allows In-house counsel to focus less on mundane and administrative tasks such as filing and generating reports, thereby freeing time to perform more legal services In-house. Likewise, the Courts could potentially remain grappling with efficiency related challenges which affect the quick access to justice. 

What Can Lawyers Do?

“The Fourth Industrial Revolution is synonymous with uncharted growth in digitization and internet connectivity. It has the potential to drive Africa forward like never before, enabling innovation, spurring new business models and improving the delivery of public services.” 

What is obvious and imperative is that any person or profession for that matter, that intends to be part of the disruption and to ultimately benefit from it, must be open to the new and unexplored. What does this mean for African Lawyers? Mindset change.

The practice of law is strongly rooted in long held traditions and customs. The continued existence and practice of these traditions and customs, and their being so revered, can arguably be said speaks to colour lawyers’ perceptions on change and disruption, such that they may be more inclined against and cautious about, steering from the norm. However, Lawyers must now be open to the possibility that digitization could positively challenge how legal services can be delivered and what services they can offer the public, if the ongoing technological disruption is to yield benefits for them and ultimately the public at large.  A protectionist approach will hinder as opposed to benefit lawyers and lawyers could place themselves at risk of being left out of Africa’s growth.

Furthermore, it will be incumbent upon lawyers to deliberately gain deep insight into what the Fourth Industrial Revolution is, in order to ensure proficiency at identifying and understanding the attendant legal issues and be in a position to tap into the potential for growth. Education in specific areas of technology law as it evolves, and continuous professional development in relevant areas of practice, is important now more than ever


It is recognised that Africa has hardly been able to fully enjoy the benefits of the Third Industrial Revolution, on account of several limitations at national level. The transformation under the Fourth Industrial Revolution is building on the Third Industrial Revolution and could therefore take longer to reach all of Africa. Yet, this slower pace, should allow African lawyers to adequately prepare for the revolution. Lawyers, as key players in Africa’s justice system, must see an opportunity of growth in new areas of practice, for taking up an influential and active role in the revolution and for supporting the companies whose growth will benefit national economies. Lawyers must also see how technology can enhance access to justice through the use of technology.