Artificial intelligence is on the horizon, and it’ll be able to achieve feats far superior to those the humble human brain is capable of. But lawyers and law firms shouldn’t worry too much – it’s an opportunity to put our sluggish biological lumps of grey matter to better use.
Automation Anxiety in the Legal Profession
Historically, worker displacement by technology was only an issue for low-skilled labour. In the 19th century, the Luddites rose up against difficult working conditions and their employers’ attempts to industrialise by breaking the labour-saving technology that was putting them out of work. Weaving was the craft of man, not machine. Yet while little could be done to turn the tide of inevitable change, it was an opportunity to raise awareness of their plight – that their skill and craft were becoming obsolete, their livelihoods under threat and everyone was getting lesser quality as a result. Sound familiar?
Concerns are being voiced over the impact artificial intelligence will have (once it gets here) on the value and need for professionals. We are living, it is said, in ‘an era of automation anxiety’, the awful spectre of inevitable work displacement looming over us. The legal sector has been presented with this hypothesis before by futurologist Richard Susskind, whose book The End of Lawyers?, published in 2008, encouraged lawyers to rethink their traditional roles and embrace the opportunities presented by emerging technology.
Susskind and his son Daniel have recently widened the scope of this hypothesis to include all professionals in The Future of the Profession: How Technology Will Transform the Work of Human Experts, published late last year. Their conclusions, amongst other things: ‘…increasingly capable systems will bring transformations to professional work that will resemble the impact of industrialisation on traditional craftsmanship’. Does that mean we’re on a slippery slope towards a dystopian future, where lawyers, judges, actuaries and other are guerrilla activists, sabotaging the servers housing the technology that has made their existence pointless?
Exciting as that may sound, probably not – the reality is likely to be far less dramatic. As suggested by Susskind, change will be brought about by ‘an ‘incremental transformation’ in the way that we produce and distribute expertise in society’, that will only eventually lead to the ‘dismantling of the traditional professions’.
Automation anxiety should perhaps, therefore, be viewed as a knee-jerk response to valuable discussions of what the consequences of technology could and should be. It’s a position that tends to forget that technology is developed and adopted gradually, subject to processes of review and improvement that seek to make tasks easier, and in a way that is informed by and often complements the human touch.
Task Automation, Not Job Automation for Lawyers
John Markoff’s blog ‘The End of Lawyers? Not So Fast’ for The New York Times is a particularly balanced look at recent research into the relationship between technology and job displacement. He finds ‘a growing consensus that it is important to distinguish “task” automation from “job” automation’. Your android might be able to process data and information quicker but it doesn’t have the same creative flair and problem-solving abilities of your slow biological brain, which allows for more reflective and in-depth analysis.
For the legal sector, this means using technology to better train lawyers, serve clients and improve access to justice. This is especially true for lawyers who find themselves swamped by unnecessary administrative work. Automation frees them up to focus on the case rather than manning the printer.
It’s also worth keeping in mind that automation is already a relatively common feature for our society, with many law firms’ marketing departments regularly using automated processes today. CRM (customer relationship management) software has enabled vast contact lists to be cultivated quickly, managed easily and dynamically used. Email marketing software, such as MailChimp or Dotmailer, afford much automated functionality, especially via the reporting features that most include as part of their services. These comprehensive reports allow senders to see who has opened and forwarded emails; which addresses have bounced and those who are repeated non-openers. All of the above allows the sender to see who is genuinely engaged with their products and services, i.e. who they’re most likely to close a sale with, and conversely, those that can be removed from contact lists altogether.
Shorter lists of genuine prospects are infinitely more valuable than larger lists of disengaged ones and help consolidate the sales pipeline. In addition, campaigns can be scheduled to send automatically, contact lists can be segmented to target specific groups – all with a few clicks. LinkedIn and Twitter also include automated features, like scheduling posts in advance, for example.
The future is therefore a more honed development and exploitation of technology that already assists us in our daily lives. However, it’s vital to bear in mind Bill Gates position in respect of automation:
“The first rule of any technology used in a business is that automation applied to an efficient operation will magnify the efficiency. The second is that automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency.”
In this regard, it’s vital that an entire law firm, and not just its in-house marketing department, is already running efficiently in order for automation of tasks to improve upon existing processes.
The Future of Task Automation in the Legal Sector
So what, exactly, could the future of task automation technology look like for the legal sector? Writing on the Capterra Legal Software Blog, Cathy Reisenwitz asked five legal tech entrepreneurs for their thoughts on what innovations the legal industry can expect, and the future, according to some of them, might look something like this:
- Document automation, electronic signatures, automated filings and open-sourced transactions, says Mark Oblad, founder and CEO of Valcu Inc. (developer of tools aimed at automating incorporation and complex commercial documents and transactions): ‘We expect the rate of contracting to increase and that transactional lawyers that stay up with the latest technology trends to continue moving up value chain’
- Less office technology and more cloud-based software, says Rick Kabra, CEO of CosmosLex Cloud (provider of law practice management software): ‘At the end of the day, tomorrow’s lawyer will be able to handle much larger caseloads, with far less effort and more dependable results than anyone ever thought possible’.
- Using AI to offer more sophisticated and nuanced advice, says Ned Gannon, co-founder and CEO of eBrevia (harnesses machine learning technology to make document review more efficient): ‘Based on the nature of some of its more routine tasks, such as due diligence, the legal industry is particularly amenable to machine learning innovation… AI will enable an attorney to work more accurately and efficiently, rather than supplanting all of her tasks. AI can also assist tech-savvy lawyers in offering more sophisticated and nuanced advice, for instance, in creating a database of market terms for private equity funds and hedge funds’.
Also brace yourself for online dispute resolution to extend into digital litigation. Having raised nearly $3 million in seed funding last year, US legal software company eDepoze is expanding its cloud-based litigation platform.
What these developments all have in common is that they don’t displace the core role of the lawyer as creative thinker and problem-solver. AI is unlikely to be capable of replicating or delivering these characteristics any time soon. Nor will it supersede the need for human to human interactions – complex transactions will still need to be steered, disputes will still need to be settled and rights will still need to be enforced and protected.
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