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Guest post: Why tech won’t kill lawyers (until it kills us all)

Technology is not going to kill off lawyers, despite the current trend for saying so. Computer programs are not going to make real lawyers redundant. Far from it. Here is why.

Technology is very important to the legal industry, critical even. How could a modern law firm operate without huge investments in computers, data centres, intranets, extranets, web sites and email systems?

What would lawyers do without the ability to develop templates or aggregate a firm’s legal knowledge to be used in future client matters? How would a management team keep track of what work was being done, what had been billed or who was working on what matters, without complex computer software?

How unproductive would law firms become if one took all of that technology away? What would happen if lawyers were returned to just paper, pens and a fixed line telephone? Seems hard to even consider such a scenario today. But, that was where the legal sector was just a few decades ago.

Now, if we take it as read that technology is going to eat up the work that lawyers do then presumably – as tech evangelicals suggest – we should be half way there to this doomsday scenario by now. After all, since the 1990s law firms have seen an incredible growth in the use of technology, especially digital technology. If one follows the logic of the techies, then as computers become more advanced lawyers’ importance should start to dwindle. Surely the legal sector’s days are therefore numbered?

But, the legal industry has never employed so many people. There have never been so many lawyers. Demand for legal advice has never been so high.

The reason for this is simple: technology is not the sole determinant of the number of lawyers or underlying demand for legal services, or arguably even a particularly powerful one.

As capitalism and the global economy have advanced and companies grown and prospered; as governments have produced more laws and regulations; as commerce becomes more rules-based; as emerging markets have integrated with Western businesses, the demand for lawyers has increased. Technological advances have helped lawyers to keep up with this demand, not diminish their importance.

The truth is that technology, (whether advances from fountain pens to Biros, or basic PCs to the latest mainframes such as IBM’s Watson), doesn’t remove the need for lawyers.

This is because lawyers do something very special. They make decisions. They use their very human powers of judgment to decide what is the right course of action for a person or a business. Very often they need to be creative and imaginative to find the best legal solutions. Naturally, all of this activity takes place in the context of the law of the day, but it is not the work of an automaton.

But, one might say, junior lawyers are always complaining about the monotonous nature of due diligence, of checking documents for typos, of searching endless databases for evidence in litigation. Surely this could be automated? And the answer is yes. It can.

The bigger question is: what does this then mean for lawyers, especially the highly-trained commercial lawyers who many consider most at risk from advancing technology?

The reality is that a lot of the most commoditised elements of legal work are already being outsourced or Northshored to process centres to lawyers and paralegals who are not on the partnership track. If anyone is going to lose their jobs because of improving document formation software it will be this section of the legal community.

Those lawyers who are paid to think, to be creative, to explore the legal possibilities for a client are in for a long and prosperous future. And really, is that not what a lawyer actually is, a thinker through the law, someone who can imagine a legal solution to a client’s problem and then produce it? It seems that technology is actually a greater threat to those who work on the fringes of law firms, that is to say those who conduct process tasks where there is little mental input other than to fact check. But then, is losing such work to machines such a loss to mankind or the legal sector?

As Eric Schmidt, chief executive of Google, once said: ‘Humans will continue to do what we do well, and computers will do what they do well. The two will coexist, but in different spaces.’

While techies will try to argue that IT is changing the legal market in a way that is forcing law firms to question their business models, it is the clients who are making the most impact.

Law firms have had to focus on how to better produce process work not because of technology, but because clients started to push back on fees for work they didn’t value so highly any more.

This put pressure on some law firms’ margins. But perhaps this was inevitable. The legal market is rather crowded and there is nothing like competitive forces for pushing down prices for products or services that can be produced by multiple businesses without much differentiation.

This is what has led to commoditisation, unbundling, outsourcing and to some degree the automation of document production. But it was not IT that led to commoditization.

But what about artificial intelligence (AI)? What will happen when there are programs so advanced they can think and act like humans? What happens when these are placed into mechanical forms that can move about as easily as humans?

That is an interesting question. The reality is that we are a very, very long way from anything like that. At present the best software systems in the world can ‘compute’ answers to very linear problems, even if those problems contain millions of variables. They can even mimic human conversation, at least via an email exchange. But does this amount to creative intelligence? Does this threaten those who ‘think’? I’d argue not.

And, if we do ever get to the stage that AI truly exists as in Sci-Fi movies, where artificial minds can be mass produced and are as good as human minds in every way, then worrying about who will be a lawyer will be the least of our problems, for surely by then we will all be unemployed, our clients included.

Richard Tromans is the founder of legal consultancy TromansConsulting