The Rise of Machines and the Future of Law Part I

‘Robots replacing lawyers a near certainty!’ (Australasian Lawyer, Feb. 22, 2016)

‘Why hire a lawyer when a robot will do?’ (Bloomberg View, Sept. 26, 2016)

‘Relax, robots won’t replace lawyers!’ (AFR, Sept. 8, 2016)

In the first of our series Career Hacks we look at the profession of law; one which is steeped in centuries of tradition yet exposed to the same winds of change arising from automation and the computational world.

If you are a lawyer trying to understand the future of the profession, or a student making plans to study Law, these headlines from the past twelve months will be confusing at best. Historically, a law degree has been a ticket to a high income and a respected career. The image of passionate lawyers battling it out in court is familiar to viewers of TV dramas – but we might not be tuning in if the lawyers were the Ross Intelligence legal system responding to legal questions with an automated two-page memo. It might not be The Good Wife – but could it be the future of the legal profession?

Can a Computer be a Lawyer?

Legal experts are divided on the effect of automation on the profession. Recent advances in Artificial Intelligence, such as the IBM Watson-based Ross Intelligence System, and a recent Australian innovation, AILIRA (an AI tax law research system), have created a stir. These systems use Natural Language Processing to enable answers to legal questions in natural language. These are a significant advancement on existing legal research systems and have the potential to disrupt the work of lawyers, who spend many hours undertaking legal research tasks. Some experts predict that by 2026, up to 25% of the more routine tasks of lawyers will be automated (Mills, 2016).

These advances in legal research software are enhanced by advances in online legal document services like LegalZoom. These services offer simple legal documents like basic contracts and wills, cheaply and quickly. Services like these are already disrupting the traditional legal service model: 24 hours a day, with no interaction with a human (and costly) lawyer.

However, the tasks and services offered by LegalZoom, Ross Intelligence, and AILIRA replace some of the routine and simpler tasks of lawyering, such as document review, document drafting, legal research, and due diligence. These tasks, according to a recent study by Professors Dana Remus and Frank Levy from the University of North Carolina and MIT, make up less than 50 per cent of a lawyer’s tasks – and even so, most cannot be fully automated. The authors reviewed the tasks undertaken by thousands of lawyers and found that the tasks most often undertaken by lawyers involved a high level of ‘unstructured human interaction’ (Remus and Levy, 31) and as such would be only slightly affected by automation. These ‘human’ tasks included advising clients, legal writing, document management, negotiation, and appearing in court. All of these lawyer’s tasks required critical Future Work Skills, such as a high level of emotional intelligence, critical thinking skills, and the ability to interpret the law and legal decisions and apply them to a unique set of facts. Despite the media hype about computerized lawyers and robot judges, many of the tasks of lawyers are at low risk from automation.

 The Future

In Western countries, over 90 per cent of legal matters are resolved in mediation (McClellan, 2008, 17). The ability to mediate or settle a disagreement between disputing parties has always been at the heart of much of legal practice. It is unlikely that this will change, even as automation affects those tasks that are routine or systematised in legal services. However, there are many roles in the practice of law that are either the role of junior lawyers, law clerks, or paralegals, that are at risk of automation. These include document drafting (simple contracts and wills, which can be done by these staff using templates), discovery (finding documents and other information relevant to a legal matter – a sometimes enormous task), and document management. About 44% of the billable hours undertaken by large and small law firms (which includes the tasks of these staff) could be automated in some way (Remus and Levy, 37). This may affect both employment and the bottom line.

For lawyers themselves, this is likely to mean that the core of their occupation will remain the same (helping people to resolve legal matters) but how they do their job will change. They already have had to adapt to doing more things themselves; for example, using software programmes rather than relying on the work of humans to assist them in routine legal research tasks and discovery. These programmes are valuable, but still require a lawyer’s expertise to review and interpret their usefulness and application to their specific case. However the many human labour hours required to retrieve that material is no longer required. This was the finding of a recent study by McKinsey, that automation will redefine, rather than replace, the tasks undertaken by humans in most occupations. The occupations will survive, they argue, but automation will replace repetitive or routine tasks and free up resources for more valuable and labour-intensive tasks. For lawyers this is likely to mean AI to assist in their routine tasks, fewer support staff to assist them, and more billable hours in client-facing roles. For clients with routine legal needs, automation in the law could mean they will be speaking to a legal chatbot like AILIRA, instead of a lawyer.

But if you ever have the right to remain silent, you’d better make that one phone call to a human.

Next in Career Hacks we interview the inventor of AILIRA and an the owner of a law firm who is a keen uptaker of AI in his practice.

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