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Artificial Intelligence: Is there a future for lawyers?

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is already in place in many law firms. Remarkable advancements in AI technology have cast doubt upon the future of the legal industry, with many fearing that AI might soon replace lawyers altogether.

Last week, I attended a conference hosted by the London School of Economics with Édouard Phillipe, Prime Minister of France from 2017-2020 under President Macron. Aside from being a stimulating discussion on the complexities of the French social, economic, and political spheres, there was something which M. Philippe said which particularly caught my attention. On the topic of AI, he said that in the not-too-distant future, there will no longer be any lawyers.

Immediately, I thought to myself: ‘great, well there goes my career plan’.

In an attempt to salvage what remains there might be of my future career, I decided to research this issue to see if M. Philippe’s assertion holds any merit.

There is, in fact, some evidence to suggest that it does. In its 2018 report Will robots really steal our jobs?, PwC concluded that AI would put 30% of UK jobs under threat. In terms of the legal sector, it is predicted that AI technology could eliminate several junior roles such as paralegals and research positions within the next decade.

Law firms rely on bands of paralegals and researchers to discover, analyse, and process information. This is an expensive process which results in an increase in the rates they charge, to cater for this costly reliance. AI, in opposition to armies of paralegals, can be used to conduct arduous research for a fraction of the time and price. AI is thus attractive for law firms seeking to improve their operations management and maximise profits.

It is not only in data collection and arduous research, too, where AI might be more efficient than the human lawyer. There also exist situations in which AI might be more efficient even when interacting with humans. It has been shown that people are more likely to be honest with AI than with a person, due to the machine’s incapacity for judgement. Furthermore, when taking witness statements, AI is able to determine every case where a witness testified and what their opinions are far quicker and more thoroughly than any human could, making this process far more efficient. The software Luminance, for example, can hierarchically assign workflows and automate low-level tasks, freeing up resources for strategic thinking, analysis and advice.

It is apparent, then, that AI can be used to ameliorate areas of the legal industry in terms of both cost and efficiency and could perform certain actions better than humans. However, to say that as a result AI will simply replace lawyers seems reductionist and one-dimensional. What appears far more convincing is to say that whilst AI will certainly make its mark in the legal sector, and may to some extent replace administrative roles, for lawyers themselves it is a positive and indeed essential addition that they will learn to work with.

Indeed, lawyers should not be worried about the fact that they might not be able to bill as many hours or charge as high fees due to huge reductions in time spent conducting research. Rather, lawyers should be excited about such technical advancements, which will allow them to solve problems as quickly and inexpensively as possible – the ultimate job of a lawyer.

Furthermore, whilst not being able to technically bill as many hours as before, lawyers should feel encouraged by the fact that in enhancing the efficiency of their work, they are likely to attract more business and more clients. Tom Girardi, a renowned civil litigator, explains ‘if a lawyer can use AI to win a case and do it for less than someone without AI, who do you think the client will choose to work with next time?’. As such, firms whose lawyers embrace and adapt to AI will be at a strategic advantage to those who do not.

And what AI lacks in conscious decision-making, the human lawyer makes up through empathy. Therefore, a collaboration of these two processes leads to the most efficient decision-making process for lawyers. With AI, lawyers will still exercise their independent professional judgement and more advanced cognitive ability due to critical thinking skills and creativity. But, they will work faster, more smartly, and more accurately.

Of course, AI will need to be implemented carefully. Song Richardson, Dean of the University of California-Irvine School of Law, worries about the possibility of unconscious bias within AI, as with machine-learning, AI can only be as objective as the people who teach it. AI’s conclusions, then, must also be regarded with a human ability to critically think, again reinforcing the proposition that it cannot simply replace lawyers. It is these higher order processing skills which humans are essential for, skills which lawyers have in abundance.

In addition to careful implementation of AI, there should also be a degree of diligence when it comes to ensuring that law firms are not overly reliant upon AI for low-level work. Indeed, lower-level work such as cataloguing, legal research and data processing is actually integral to the shaping of successful lawyers in their early years. Over-reliance on AI for such work could lead to carelessness, as a meticulous attention to detail is essential to the make-up of a successful lawyer. Undoubtedly, law firms will not allow for lawyers’ standards to slip, and so a careful, collaborative approach to AI seems likely, again reinforcing the fact that it will not simply replace the human lawyer.

Ultimately, the question of whether lawyers have a future alongside advances in AI can be answered with a resounding yes. The idea that AI will replace lawyers is nothing but myth; it will free them. It will speed up their workflow, and allow both solicitors and barristers to carry out daily tasks and bigger-picture work more efficiently. Those within the legal sector and future lawyers must understand how AI works and its implications for the field, as it is inevitable that within the next decade any law firm striving for success will have AI operating on a large scale. It may mark the end of the road for some paralegals or assistants, but for lawyers, it marks the beginning of an exciting new era.


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