It’s a rarity for the great pre-occupations of our age to intersect so closely with that of the legal profession but artificial intelligence (AI) and the prospect of increasingly capable machines taking on swathes of work handled by people is a startling exception.
While there has been much debate regarding the disorientating march of intelligent machines, the discussion is particularly potent in law, based as it is on the application of large, codified bodies of information that are freely available but very expensively applied via the legal profession.
And, as we address in our report on AI and automation this month, the hype looks largely justified. Advances in recent years in machine learning against a backdrop of increasingly powerful networked computers means automation has already driven considerable change in the legal industry in the last decade. Within five years that process will probably be at the level of reshaping the underlying business model of many industry leaders.
Contract creation and management, discovery, knowledge management and many compliance functions – all are currently seeing notable advances: not in the cutting-edge start-ups and universities, but within mainstream corporate law firms and alternative service providers.
In many regards the term AI is a distraction, it is the systemising of expertise via processes and machines where the revolution is happening, but it is profound nonetheless.
Where some see opportunity, others fret for the future of the law, a concern voiced in the new book by Richard Susskind and his son Daniel, The Future of the Professions.
Yet there are many reasons to believe that widespread employment in the legal industry (and it will become viewed more as industry than profession), will continue for years to come.
Technology has for decades created many new jobs for those it has displaced – and will likely do so again in the medium term in law in a new generation of workers handling the interface between tech and law. Technology also frequently opens up new services and (in law perhaps even more importantly) creates new liabilities that need to be managed. There is also the latent demand point – opening markets un-served because providers are far too expensive.
Others point convincingly to the ‘augmentation’ notion of employment alongside advanced tech. This maintains that as machines take on more work, people migrate to areas in which they enjoy comparative advantage, primarily those requiring creativity and social skills. In law this suggests an increasing premium on skills such as negotiation, business development, client handling and intuitive analysis in the face of poor information.
But even on this upbeat view the impact will be dramatic; in 20 years it seems certain that far more ‘product’ will be given away for free and many more legal employees will be specialists working with decision support tools and expert systems rather than qualified lawyers. Much of the profession will also have to get over its addiction to only providing services produced at ridiculous margins.
If that sounds too upbeat, there is nothing to be complacent about but there’s nothing complacent about the profession’s response so far. The legal industry is conservative but has always had more ability to rapidly adapt when necessary than is acknowledged. That quality will be tested as never before.
To read more on artifical intelligence and the law, subscribers can read ‘Deep blue sky thinking: the cutting edge of legal AI.’