Will lawyers be replaced by robots?

Will lawyers be replaced by robots?

The legal world is changing rapidly, and becoming more tech-heavy with each passing day. Those wanting a future in the legal world face in a perilous decision. Will they adapt? Or be brushed aside by almighty Artificial Intelligence? What will the lawyers of the future look like? This article considers the longer arc of law and technology, and answers this question by giving two big recommendations to anyone scanning the horizon for the future of law.

The June edition of the Virtual lunch event in partnership with Flex legal and Crafty Counsel, welcomed Shilpa Bhandarkar, CEO of Nakhoda, to speak. As CEO of Nakhoda, a Linklater’s backed lawtech start-up, Shilpa was in a great position to offer some informed insights into the skills lawyers will need in the coming years. This article is based entirely on information she presented during her talk.

How important is legal technology, really?

As we watch technology and AI become increasingly more powerful, many working professionals could be forgiven for asking themselves a terrifying question: “is a robot going to take my job?”. Let’s be candid for a second – the legal industry is no exception to this.

Whilst law has historically been slow moving to innovate and adopt new technologies, the pace of technological acceleration is rapidly increasing. Now, even the conventionally slow legal industry is being forced to catch up.

Change is happening fast.

A recent inCase article found that UK law firms are enthusiastically embracing technologies such as cloud-based infrastructure, client-facing chatbots, and AI-powered process automation. Law firms are currently frantically rushing to snap up many “Legal Technologists” as they possibly can. A report by Thomson Reuters found that lawtech start ups are seeing exponentially bigger investments with each passing year.

The cold reality is that technology isn’t coming to law. It’s already here. We are, in no uncertain terms, standing at the beginning of an enormous technological leap forwards that will completely transform the practice of law. If they are to survive, future lawyers will need to learn how to work in the new frontier of a tech-heavy legal industry.

What can legal technology do right now?

Before we go any further, let’s take a step back. In order to appreciate where and how legal technology will become increasingly important in future, we need to understand where it is right now. The answer to this question is initially terrifying – but please stay with us.

AI programmes are already being used to automate previously cumbersome processes. We all know that e-discovery has long been the norm within law, but now more and more processes are following similar patterns of automation. Areas like Document Review, preparing Bundles, and Due Diligence are all being increasingly managed by software and programmes instead of actual human legal professionals. Even Nakhoda’s own CreateIQ platform is chopping down multiple stages of contract negotiation process.

This naturally begs the question – why? Why are these processes being handed over to technology instead of having an actual human handle them? There’s three answers to this question, and they’re all rather simple:

  1. Technology is more accurate.
  2. Technology is quicker.
  3. Technology is cheaper.

A clear bit of context can be found in a 2018 study conducted by LawGeex contract review platform. They got 20 top US corporate lawyers to comb through five Non-Disclosure Agreements for errors and issues. Alongside them, their contract review AI was given the same task. The exercise produced some interesting results. The 20 corporate lawyers were able to find an average of 85% of issues in the NDAs. The AI on the other hand found 94%. That is, it goes without saying, an enormous finding. An automated AI programme is demonstrably more accurate in finding contractual issues than its human counterparts. But wait – here’s the real kicker. It took the 20 lawyers an average of 92 minutes to review all 5 NDAs. It took the AI 26 seconds.

This is exactly where legal technology is right now, and really informs us as to where it’s going to go from here. Lengthy and repetitive tasks that would conventionally take hours and hours of time can be completed by artificial intelligence a fraction of the time it would take a human to do. Not only that, but they will do so better, more accurately, and at a much lower cost. The future of work in the legal industry involves accepting this, and working with that change, not against it.

How will legal technology change in the future?

This leads us onto the main meat of this article, and of the talk Shilpa gave.

A good answer to the question above can be found in the work of artificial intelligence scholar and theoretical neuroscientist, Vivienne Ming. The Lawyers vs AI competition mentioned earlier is often cited by Vivienne, who uses it to paint a rather flattering and appealing picture of the future of law. Instead of some Terminator-esque future where machines have taken over and are fighting to replace humans – Ming proposes a future where humans instead adapt to the changed circumstances, and use AI to enhance their own decision making processes. Let’s explore that vision.

As the legal world changes and more law firms, courts, and chambers adopt more technology and AI, legal decisions supported by AI will likely become the expected norm. Let’s break that down a bit. Think of our earlier example of e-discovery. In 2021, you could be forgiven for thinking that a “conventional” discovery process handled entirely by humans sounds absurd. It is now conventionally accepted wisdom that a human couldn’t possibly perform discovery as quickly or accurately as a machine could. This will undoubtedly soon become the case with other routine legal tasks. High-volume, low-risk work, will almost entirely be taken over by machines.

The trick to making sure you and your work are not replaced by robots, is to understand this, and begin to build your strengths in areas Artificial Intelligence could (theoretically) never replace. AI still needs to be trained by humans, and shown thousands of examples of human work before it can identify patterns and replicate them. Even then, it only knows what it is explicitly trained on – anything new will throw it. Commonplace errors such as a comma in the wrong place, or the use of “big” instead of “large”, could potentially throw an AI if it hasn’t been explictally trained to deal with those.

How can legal professionals prepare for the future of legal tech?

Machines struggle in areas that require critical thinking. Anything involving ambiguity, subjectivity, or even just vague uncertainty, can trip them up. This is where human ingenuity has an edge, and likely will into the very distant future. An AI simply cannot apply creative, lateral thinking to consider fresh possibilities. True technological critical thinking is a thing of the distant, distant future, and not something we can ever speculate on.

What we can say, is that routine legal tasks are about to become almost entirely automated. The next 10 – 15 years in the legal industry will see a huge transformation towards this, and it will become the norm. The sooner you can understand how that technology works, and implement it into your own legal decision making, the better. Our first big recommendation is this:

Learn to code.

Coding is a bit like learning a language. The sooner you start, the easier you can pick it up. You don’t need to have a completely comprehensive understanding, but just having a basic understanding of code will help in a few ways:

  1. It will make you more open to new technology. By understanding the underlying principles of technology and AI, you will be able to make the most of the tech available to you. It will make you better equipped to push the boundaries of your own abilities.
  2. It will give you a clear idea of what can be automated. When you know how machine learning and automation works, you will be able to better apply it to your own working practices. It will make you quicker and more efficient.
  3. You can communicate better with developers. Whether this is on tools they are designing or products they are using, being able to talk with developers in a language they understand will help you work more effectively with those around you.

Our second big recommendation is this:

Be adaptable.

In the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin famously “said” that “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change”. The legal future looks like this. We know our second recommendation is a vague one, but consider everything we’ve laid out here. Those that can quickly adapt, and learn to cope with the rapidly evolving pace of a legal industry that works alongside AI, will survive. Lawyers and paralegals that learn to use AI to enhance their own decision making will quickly become the accepted norm.

Stay true to your intelligence – your true, human, intelligence. If you can prepare for a world where lawyers work hand in hand with machines, you are already one step ahead of everyone else.

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About the author:

Sophie is Head of Learning & Development at F-LEX Legal - an award winning legal tech startup helping law firms and organisations manage a flexible work force and supporting lawyers to make smarter life/work choices. 

As part of her portfolio career Sophie runs various learning and development and networking forums for in-house lawyers and mentors junior lawyers.  These include Flying Solo for small and solo legal teams and Aspire for junior in-house lawyers which she runs for LexisNexis UK.  She also works with schools and organisations to promote social mobility within the legal profession, working with The Social Mobility Business Partnership and Aspiring Solicitors. 

She trained as a lawyer in the City and worked as an in-house lawyer for 10 years including as Head of Legal for Virgin Radio and Ginger Media Group.  

Outside of work she is happily married with three sons and enjoys morning walks along the beach with her two dogs.