Tech specialist Michelle Dunlop has seen firsthand the potential of AI to drive major change
Michelle Dunlop’s legal chops have taken her everywhere from New Zealand to London. For someone who wasn’t certain at first whether she would practise law, she has since gone on to hold various positions, both as a private practitioner and as an in-house counsel.
One of her roles involved working with the legal department at Google’s AI lab DeepMind, which granted her a firsthand view of the development of various vital technologies and highlighted the potential of AI to influence major societal problems like climate change. Thus, the Simpson Grierson senior associate believes that the legal profession will have to take on a digital mindset in order to tackle the novel issues birthed by such developments.
In this interview, the tech specialist talks about what gave her the final push to become a lawyer, living in a London on lockdown and the importance of colleagues providing support to one another.
What made you choose a career in law?
When I was leaving school, I hadn’t fully decided what I wanted to do. I chose to study law because I thought it would give me a good skillset that would serve me well, regardless of whether or not I ended up going on to practice law.
It wasn’t until I summer-clerked at Simpson Grierson that I decided I’d pursue a career as a lawyer, and since then I’ve never looked back.
What is the most memorable case you've taken on/been involved in?
It is hard to pick just one thing! I’ve been lucky enough to have a varied career that has involved working in New Zealand, Australia and the UK in both in-house and external counsel roles. Of the roles I’ve had, working in the legal team at DeepMind (Google’s AI lab) was the most eye-opening. I saw firsthand how the technologies they were building could be used to save energy, detect eye disease, monitor ecological changes and solve the 50-year-old protein folding problem.
It really drove home for me AI’s potential to impact the big societal challenges like climate change and healthcare. Being able to play a small part in their transformative projects felt like a real privilege.
What is going on at the firm? Are there any new programs and initiatives that you’re particularly interested in?
In the technology team I work in, we’ve been busy doing a lot with clients around data protection, cybersecurity and privacy, particularly in light of the Privacy Act 2020 that came into force in December last year. So many of our clients’ businesses are now data-driven, and having robust information management compliance programmes has become top of their minds.
Across the firm as a whole, I think Simpson Grierson has made great progress in raising awareness on mental health issues in the profession, and ensuring the wellbeing of its staff with initiatives like its THRIVE programme. THRIVE is run by our organisational and development manager, and serves as a reminder to people to look after themselves, which has been a particularly welcome reminder during lockdown. There’s monthly THRIVE newsletters that get circulated internally, with tips for practicing mindfulness and healthy living.
Recently, the THRIVE Champions initiative was launched, which is an internal support network made up of Simpson Grierson staff from all areas. The champions are trained in mental health awareness and support, and are there for anyone at Simpson Grierson to reach out to if they need someone to talk to. I love the idea of colleagues supporting one another.
What’s the biggest lesson you learned in the past year and what advice can you give fellow lawyers about it?
For most of last year, I was living in London under COVID-19 restrictions of varying degrees and worked at home for the duration. With the current lockdowns across the country, I can only say to my fellow practitioners to hang in there! Try as best you can to build boundaries between your work and home life, prioritise your own and your family’s wellbeing, keep moving and stay connected to your colleagues.
What are the challenges you expect in your practice, and in the business of law in general, going forward? What challenges are particularly pressing in the country’s legal industry?
I would say the challenges presented by advanced technologies. There are already a number of legaltech startups and intelligent tools on the market disrupting the status quo, and we can expect more to come of greater levels of sophistication. Clients are increasingly expecting their lawyers to utilise technology to provide speedier, more cost-efficient advice. The profession will need to adopt a digital mindset and be ready to address the challenges these technologies bring, including around security, privacy, quality assurance, change management and upskilling of the workforce.
What are you looking forward to the most in the coming year?
I’m planning to hike the Milford Track in January, which I’m very excited about! Having lived overseas for so long, I have a new-found appreciation for New Zealand’s natural beauty and can’t wait to explore more of it.