Why lawyers shouldn’t fear their robot colleagues 

Though there has been a lot of chatter in legal circles about the potential long term impact of artificial intelligence on the profession, one thing is certain, the programmes currently on the market are a long way from the level of sophistication that would be required for lawyers to be replaced by robot counterparts.

The AI services being used by earlier adopters, such as Linklaters and Clifford Chance, are in fact programmes based on machine learning rather than ‘artificially intelligent’ ones.

Artificial intelligence is widely defined as a programme which, by replicating human cognition, can function autonomously and with intention. While a significant number of the programmes available to law firms are based on machine learning, a subset of AI, few if any could be described as truly ‘artificially intelligent’.

The types of programme on offer aim to automate labour intensive tasks, and increase efficiency by reducing the time lawyers spend on time consuming, but crucial, tasks.

While it’s true is that artificial intelligence and its applications within the legal profession have developed significantly in recent years, such advancements actually stand to benefit legal professionals rather than jeopardise their career prospects.

AI programmes have advanced beyond the point of process automation and into the fields of natural language processing and machine learning, both of which can be applied to law in a number of useful ways. 

AI programmes can add value to law firms by modelling and reapplying expert knowledge much faster than lawyers are able to. Allowing law firms to complete repetitive tasks that involve legal precedents and specific knowledge far quicker, giving lawyers more time to concentrate on complex and intricate legal work.

Others use machine learning to interpret information and adjust their processes based on user feedback. Rather than searching for key words they read and understand the links between key words within a phrase to provide contextual based information. 

Kira, which has been recently adopted by Clifford Chance, claims to reduce time spend on contract review work by up to 60% by automatically highlighting and extracting relevant contract language from large amounts of data.

Kira uses natural language processes to identify relevant information and clauses even when the wording varies substantially from that used within a document. ROSS, built on IBM’s Watson, also uses natural language processing to assist with complex research tasks, and utilizes supervised and unsupervised machine learning to confirm its interpretation of the original question. 

So the question is, how will these changes affect lawyers? Programme such as Kira and ROSS may be based on highly intelligent learning processes but they still require expert human oversight.

Regardless of their success rate, it is highly unlikely that law firms will decided to reduce headcount in favour of automation, rather it’s more likely that these programmes will allow them to better meet their clients’ needs and increase market share. 

It may however impact the skills law firms look for in new lawyers in years to come. It will no longer be enough to demonstrate that you’re willing to spend hours upon hours in the office searching diligently through reams of information, because an AI system can do that for you.

Instead professionals will need to focus even more on developing a skill set that distinguishes them from their peers, as well as a strong personal network and outstanding interpersonal skills.  

Yet despite having the potential to increase the efficiency of its lawyers, better meet client needs and ultimately increase the number of hours billed, some firms remain sceptical about embracing new AI technologies.

Artificial intelligence will undoubtedly have an impact on lawyers’ responsibilities, in particular those at more junior levels, but it could also allow more junior lawyers to gain more valuable experience from their senior counterparts instead of spending hours on research tasks.

Even though AI is developing at an accelerated rate, lawyers can be certain that they won’t be losing their jobs to a robot lawyer anytime soon.  

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