Will Artificial Intelligence Replace Lawyers? Part 1 – Opinions of the Experts

By Stephen Turner, founder – Lawyers of Tomorrow

Ask around and you’ll get a range of responses to the question, “Will lawyers be replaced by AI?”

In this four-part series, I’ll explore this issue.

In the first part of the series, I look at the opinions of experts who made up the panel and the audience at The Law Society event:robots-&-laywers

Robots & Lawyers – Partnership of the Future

The question “Will lawyers be replaced by AI?” was put to the panel at the Robots & Lawyers event at The Law Society on 21st June 2016. The panel consisted of:

  • Prof Kate Atkinson (Head of Computer Science, University of Liverpool)
  • Dale Lane (developer on IBM Watson)
  • Jonathan Smithers (President of the Law Society)
  • Prof Andy Wright (strategic technology, BAE Systems)
  • Peter Wright (solicitor, managing director DigitalLawUK, Chair of the Technology and Law Reference Group – The Law Society)

The unanimous view of the panel was that lawyers would not be replaced by AI any time soon i.e. not for years to come. The audience was also asked the same question, and only 6% thought that AI would replace lawyers.

It strikes me that this number is very low…and if you detect a whiff of complacency in the air, then I’d have to agree. My concern is that all lawyers – and young lawyers especially – need to prepare now for the impact of AI. For young lawyers this includes acquiring soft-skills, embracing innovation and becoming more commercially and technologically aware. But more on that later…

Chrissie Lightfoot 2Another audience member sharing my concern was Chrissie Lightfoot, author of ‘The Naked Lawyer’, and ‘Tomorrow’s Naked Lawyer. Chrissie pointed out that the panel’s view that lawyers would not be replace by AI was in total contrast to current authoritative research and views expressed at foreign gatherings and similar panel events, with similar delegates, where it was revealed that:

“Up to 80% of lawyer delegates thought their current roles / tasks could be replaced by technology in a matter of 5-10yrs.”

Peter Wright (DigitalLawUK, Technology and Law Reference Group) has been involved in providing guidance via practice notes for providers of online legal services – where firms are providing semi-automated legal services.  The practice notes cover systems where a client could, for example, enter information into a form on a website, press a button, and then the system would produce a draft will which then goes for review. Peter’s view was that:

“There are still going to be issues that will always have to be addressed by a human taking a quick look at [the will]. A human might know the searching questions to ask someone to find out about certain assets or issues that might otherwise not have been picked up on…you will always need to have that element of human interaction, human control.”

Okay, so assuming Peter Wright is correct, the next question is: Who will be doing the human control element?

Will the human review element be performed by a senior lawyer or a junior one? At Robots and Lawyers, there were a range of views on this issue.

Peter Wright took the view that

“It’s going to be the junior fee earners that will increasingly be doing this sort of stuff” and “it could be that actually the more expensive personnel are suddenly jettisoned if [the firms] realise that they can actually produce the same work using more junior people. Firms are always going to be looking at the bottom line, unfortunately – it’s all about money.”

A solicitor in the audience (sorry readers, I could not catch his name) suggested that having spoken with several in-house/general counsel, as far as he could see:

“They don’t care how the service is delivered as long as it’s delivered fast and as long as it’s delivered by people they like and as long as it’s cost-effective.”

In his view, this will:

“eliminate the need for junior lawyers because general counsel wants to deal with the seniors; in-house law firms will want to deal with the senior lawyers – the high-value lawyers.”

The solicitor went on to say that law schools should be getting junior lawyers ready for this possible change so that:

“They will be more innovative, more technologically savvy and they’ll be more soft skills focused rather than purely technical”.

The sentiments are share by Chrissie Lightfoot:

“AI and robot automation technologies are available right now that could do 80-90% of a lawyer’s current role today. Fact.  So why aren’t lawyers and law firms doing something about it? Why aren’t law firms and the Law Society preparing junior lawyers better?”

I echo Chrissie’s concerns and this is why I set up Lawyers of Tomorrow.lawyers-soft-skills

My goal is to focus beyond the purely technical legal skills that students learn at university and law school and towards the developing the soft skills that will be essential to all young lawyers, towards building their commercial awareness, their business relationships and a drive to innovate in their legal practice – including embracing the developments in legal-tech and understanding how to harness these technologies to their advantage.

Will Artificial Intelligence Replace Lawyers? Part 2 – The Future Has Arrived. In Part 2 of this blog series I look at the impact of Innovators and Early Adopters in the legal market and how they will pre-empt the rapid adoption of AI technologies by the majority of the legal sector.

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