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June 23 2021

Will lawyers be replaced by robots?

Industry Insights

sophie gould

sophie gould

Robots replacing lawyers? Three legal professionals huddle around a laptop at a table, surrounded by two robots who might take their jobs.

The legal world is changing rapidly, with change driven largely by advancements in artificial intelligence. Humans wanting a future in the legal world face in an uneasy decision. Will they adapt to a technologically hyper-charged legal industry? Or be brushed aside as robot lawyers update the industry? This article considers the long historical arc of law and technology, and offers two big recommendations to anyone hoping to stay relevant in an evolved legal world.

This article is based largely on information presented by Shilpa Bhandarkar, CEO of CreateiQ, at Flex Legal’s June 2021 Junior Lawyer Lunch. As CEO of CreateiQ, a Linklater’s-backed CLM platform, Shilpa is incredibly informed about how AI and legal technology is shaping the industry. We were delighted to have her with us, and to share her insights with you here.

A suited robot lawyer is seen. He adjusts his smart business jacket and gets ready to automate some contract management.

Is legal technology important?

Legal technology is more important than ever before, and it will only become more important as time goes on. As artificial intelligence and automation become increasingly powerful, working professionals could be forgiven for asking themselves a terrifying question: “is a robot going to take my job?”. It’s a valid concern that many workers across many industries rightly have and, to be candid, the legal industry is no exception.

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

A recent inCase article found that UK law firms are enthusiastically embracing technologies such as AI-powered process automation, client-facing chatbots, and cloud-based infrastructure. “Legal Technologists” are the new must-hire professionals for many law firms. A report by Thomson Reuters found that law-tech start ups are seeing exponentially bigger investments with each passing year.

The reality is that technological 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 way law is practiced. If lawyers want to stay relevant, they will need to adapt to the new frontier of a tech-heavy legal industry.

Occular observation, technological innovation.

What are the current capabilities of legal technology?

The current state of legal technology is scarily advanced, perhaps even more advanced than many legal professionals realise. AI programmes are already being used to automate previously cumbersome processes such as contract summarisation, legal research, and document assembly.

It is now an accepted norm that processes like e-discovery are easily automated. Now more and more standard processes are following similar patterns of automation. Areas like Document Review, preparing Bundles, and Due Diligence can now be managed by software and programmes instead of actual working humans. Even the 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 a safe pair of fleshy, tangible human hands deal with them? There’s three simple answers to this question:

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

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. Artificial intelligence being demonstrably more accurate in finding contractual issues than its human counterparts is a frightening prospect. But wait – it gets worse. It took the 20 lawyers an average of 92 minutes to review all 5 NDAs. It took the AI 26 seconds.

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

Vivienne Ming, future woman

How does the future of legal technology look like?

The good news is that there is a clear place for humans in a legal-tech future. One great source of info on this topic is 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.

Two lawyers high-five each other, having just learnt how to code and future-proof their legal careers

How can lawyers future-proof their legal careers?

Artificial intelligence, as far as we can tell, will struggle in areas that require critical thinking. Anything involving ambiguity, subjectivity, or even vague uncertainty, trips AI up. This is where human ingenuity has an edge, and likely will into the very distant future. Artificial intelligence can imitate processes, but simply cannot apply original, creative, lateral thinking to consider fresh possibilities. True technological critical thinking may be a thing of the distant, distant future, but isn’t something we can reliable speculate on in the present.

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 work and 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.

Additional Resources:

  • Attend a Flex Legal Virtual Lunch - each Virtual Lunch touches on a fresh and interesting topic, meaning each one is different. Click this link to go to our eventbrite, and register for upcoming events ahead of time!
  • What the Magic Circle can learn from start ups - this amazing video from our friends over at Crafty Counsel also features Shilpa Bhandakar discussing the organisational differences between bigger law firms and start-ups, and lessons the former can take from the latter.
  • What is a legal technologist? - we put some questions to The Manchester Legal Hackers, and ask them how it feels to be the new in-demand legal professionals?

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.

- Charles Darwin
English Biologist, Scientist, Beard Owner.