NI Blog: Will AI technology replace lawyers any time soon?

Andrew Kirke
Andrew Kirke

Andrew Kirke, associate director at Tughans, explores how likely it is that robots will replace lawyers in the not-too-distant future.

A couple of lawyers from Tughans were at a leading technology conference in Belfast recently and the discussion moved to the future of the legal sector and the potential for lawyers to be replaced by AI technology in the short to medium term.

The host asked if there were any lawyers present in the room.Naively, the author of this article (unlike his much wiser colleague) thrust his hand into the air, hoping for commendation for the esteemed legal profession, before the host proceeded to earnestly describe just how much he was looking forward to lawyers being replaced by machines.

And he’s not the only one thinking it. Impressive advances in AI technology tailored for legal work have led many lawyers to wonder whether their profession will be the next victim of the fourth industrial revolution.

Many readers might also join the cheer for the zenith of the age of the software developer and the decline of the service provider, in not just the legal sector, but in professional services and industry more widely.

And for any legal practitioner likely to be involved in the sector in the medium to long term, this leads to two inevitable questions…

The first is obvious. How likely is it that lawyers will be replaced by AI in the short to medium term?

The second requires more introspection. Why is it that some clients are keen to see their lawyers replaced by robots?

When it comes to the first question, the consensus amongst those in the know appears to be that, (like it or not!), a robot is not about to replace your lawyer. At least, not anytime soon.

Recent research, and even statements from those most closely involved in developing software to automate legal work say the adoption of AI in law firms will be a slow and laborious process. Recent estimates from the States have predicted that even if all current AI technology were to be immediately and fully implemented (regardless of the costs and barriers to such implementation) then it would be likely to only result in a net 2.5% reduction in lawyers’ working hours annually.

One of the fundamental issues is that law, like anything, depends on the creation of meaning. When drafting a legal contract, for example, a lawyer has to think about a very particular set of potential outcomes, and draft a document,using the nuanced art form that is the human language, to provide for those potential outcomes.

Developers (working with lawyers) have had great success in developing so called “natural language processing” technology which, when properly programmed and “taught”, can scan and predict what documents will be relevant to particular cases, or pick out particular keywords in the midst of bulk document review.They have not, however, been ableto develop technology which can properly undertake the other tasks that make up the majority ofa lawyer’s working day, such as advising clients on the meaning of those documents or keywords, providing opinions on the legal risks, drafting contracts or negotiating cases and appearing in court.

These, it seems, are still far beyond the reach of computerization, for the time being. Where the technology is going to be in the next ten years is an interesting question, but if it reaches a stage where it can create and interpret meaning in the way that a lawyer routinely needs to, then the legal sector will certainly not be the only sector at risk.

By that point, it would seem that even our friend at the tech conference might need to re-assess what role a machine could play when it comes to creating and interpreting another type of language – the language of the coders themselves.

In terms of the second question, it is true that a negative perception of the work that lawyers do still persists in some quarters.

To address this, lawyers need to focus on continuing to provide a service to you that takes complex legal concepts and simplifies them, and on providing commercial solutions and not legal opinions.

Ultimately, there wouldn’t be a software industry without the law, as concepts like protection of personal data, protection of copyright in software code for which developers have spent time and effort coding for, the framework for licensing of that software, and the documents by which a software business achieves the hallowed “exit” all of which allow developers to make a living are all creations of the law.

It requires genuine experience and knowledge of the law to interpret and apply those concepts in a way which properly protects you and makes those concepts meaningful to you.

For the time being at least, it seems the case that this genuine experience and knowledge is something that properly advised clients will remain willing to pay for.

NI Blog: Will AI technology replace lawyers any time soon?

  • Andrew Kirke is associate director at Tughans. You can view his profile here.
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