If the robots rise, will lawyers be in their sights?

If the robots rise, will lawyers be in their sights?

It is a perennial question – will the advance of technology take people’s jobs?

From the Luddites protesting the use of giant mechanical looms, to London’s black-cab drivers objecting to the use of a convenient smartphone app to book and hire a competing private car, new technology has threatened – and generally eventually overturned – the pre-existing ways of doing things. Allister Heath in the Telegraph and Edward Luce in the Financial Times have picked up on the same theme – technology will displace jobs, and the world must be prepared.

How will law firms respond to this changing world? Many would question whether they should. After all, the law is a highly complex, intrinsically human endeavour. It will always require the smartest, most analytical and creative minds – the subtext here being “human” minds, which are the most flexible and creative on the planet.

Others, such as Ray Kurzweil, would disagree and put forward an alternative future where the desktop computer becomes more intelligent than the whole of humanity within a matter of a few decades. Kurzweil and others point to the increasing exponential improvement in computing power over the last five decades, and continue that trend line for the next five, quickly coming to a point where the amount of data being processed in a millisecond is larger than the entire Internet. This might sound ludicrous but some smart people are listening – Kurzweil was recently hired by Google.

That same Google can now deploy “bots” – artificial intelligence programs running on the Internet – that can solve CAPTCHA puzzles, those little pictures that prove the reader of the web page was human. The sort of technology that was used to automatically read text that has been scanned into a photocopier (incidentally, invented by Ray Kurzweil in the 1970s) can now recognise faces in holiday snaps (as it does on Facebook) and drive a car around the streets of California for 300,000 miles without crashing.

Does the “uniquely human” legal system still seem so unassailably human?

If you accept that some elements of the law – as currently practiced – might become automated or enhanced using non-human intelligence (and they already are), who will be in the driving seat? Will the established law firms, with their brand recognition and vast pools of deep knowledge of the law and of the practice of law, be the champions of the new wave of technology? History suggests not, although there will be surprises.

Industries rise and fall as technology advances, and few companies last for more than a few decades. Toyota began life as a manufacturer of looms for the weaving industry, patenting an automatic loom machine in the 1920s before moving into cars in the 1930s. More recently, PayPal started as a way to share money between Palm Pilot PDAs (remember those?) before becoming one of the most popular ways for money to be exchanged on the Internet. Traditional companies like VISA, with 70% of the existing market, were left running to catch up.

So it is perhaps unrealistic to expect existing firms to re-invent the legal industry. It will require risk-takers and inventors, people comfortable with computer science and artificial intelligence – and some forward-thinking lawyers. It will also take a spark of inspiration, genius, or just plain old good luck. It will probably need to avoid committees, partner votes and death-by-presentation. It will possibly come from one of the existing legal knowledge suppliers, but it is just as likely to start in a university classroom or an east London back-room start-up.

Whatever form it takes, the next generation of law firms will probably not be recognisable to many lawyers today. They may hum with the sounds of air-conditioned data centres, or buzz with the dialog between a legal subject expert, a social psychologist and a data modelling expert, drawing diagrams and hacking up Monte Carlo simulators to simulate case strategies.

As Richard Susskind says in Tomorrow’s Lawyers, the future of the profession may be filled with legal project managers, knowledge engineers and process analysts, and precious few solicitors. As that world starts to take shape, are the firms of today ready for that challenge?

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About the author:

Andrew Neill is Global Programme Manager at Withersworldwide. He has a background in technical consultancy, with experience in programme portfolio management, scoping, running tenders, and architecting global solutions.