If you had asked lawyers a century ago if there was the slightest of possibilities that a machine would supplant them, the answer you would have got would have been a resounding “no!”
Because back then the probability of a machine with the ability to do what lawyers do seemed unlikely.
For centuries, the “law yard” (a term to denote the exclusiveness of what lawyers do) had been walled in, while lawyers were accorded the prerogative of providing legal services to the consuming public.
Eras have flown by and it seemed nothing could really breach that impregnable wall – not even the upheavals of the mid-18th century industrialization – that shielded the “law yard” and its archaic legal traditions from the seismic shifts in the tectonic plates of the larger society , which often resulted in countless retrenchments and the decline of other professions.
For this reason, lawyers the world over have had a measure of monopoly over their legal work in general, while the legal profession has during this time become increasingly unreceptive to technological innovations – the first innovations are said to have been recorded in the early 1940s.
But today the dynamics are fast changing with the age-old monopoly lawyers enjoy over their legal work now coming under constant attacks.
For the present, the one area threatening the monopoly of lawyers over their legal work seems to be in the field of robotics and artificial intelligence.
Today we hear of super-intelligent “bots” which have been engineered to take on certain aspects of the work lawyers do, just like those from Will Smith’s I Robot. (Hope you’ve seen the movie?)
But we shouldn’t be taken aback by this sudden change in the status quo. We’ve had the entire thing coming from a mile and, just like the recent switch from fossil fuel to alternative fuel in powering cars, the world’s new clarion call seems to be favoring a switch to artificial intelligence (AI).
If you didn’t already know, for some time now, AI has been on the ascendancy. It has been used in mobile technology so much that certain core apps on our mobile phones today would qualify for artificial intelligence.
The Cortana on my Windows phone and Siri on your Apple phone would come under the AI category. You do send them certain commands which they can execute, like me, telling Cortana to call “mum” or “search Google” or your asking Siri to “read my latest mail”.
So too, there are now “Robot Attorneys” so-called which users can command to do certain things that lawyers would ordinarily do. Or you haven’t heard of the Robot lawyer called “ROSS”? Let me put you in the picture then.
“Ross” is an AI created using IBM’s Watson Technology. This AI attorney has been hired by an American law firm, BakerHostletler, a firm with over 900 lawyers, to act as its leading researcher in bankruptcy cases.
ROSS is even said to have snagged its first client. That is unbelievable! So what is Ross supposed to do? Ross can sift through thousands of documents, read and draw inferences from existing laws to answer specific queries by users using natural language (more like the speech-to-text functionality on most smartphones today).
ROSS updates lawyers on new rulings and saves lawyers the frightening time spent on reading tons of literature and case law to pinpoint relevant cases to an issue at hand. So ROSS does the reading with the efficiency of a machine, and then the lawyer is left to analyze the cases.
Ross’ functions seem to complement lawyers in the area of research. So it might not seem that much a threat to lawyers, but there are other bots whose core functionality may seem to threaten the job security of many lawyers. Ever heard of Britain’s “DoNotPay”?
Well, it’s another AI attorney developed by an 18year old British coder, to handle parking tickets appeal (formerly something lawyers were hired for). “DoNotPay” quickly handles ticket appeals through a Q&A chat. This particular bot has been said to have appealed about $3million worth of tickets, the cost drivers would have incurred hiring a lawyer for the appeal.
And that is not the half of it! There’s another AI attorney by the name “Luminance” developed by Invoke Capital and has been “hired” to handle mergers and acquisitions. Luminance has been brought in to automate the process of due diligence, something often done by lawyers.
It has also been reported that there’s a software now to mine public court documents using natural language processing to help predict how a judge might rule in a particular case.
So Will These AI Attorneys Ever Replace Lawyers?
The answer to this question will be of interest to a lot of lawyers.
Since these AI attorneys are continually been fine-tuned to think and act like lawyers, does this mean there won’t be any more need for law students to go to law school? Or will there also be a law school for bots?
Funny as they sound, these are question every lawyer has to answer and it should ordinarily and expect some lawyer’s cringe at the thought of some AIs taking over certain aspects of their work and perhaps also taking their clients.
We might as well drive them out with a pitchfork! But wait. How can AI attorneys replace lawyers when we as humans are far superior to them in logic and reasoning? While AI’s can conduct legal research with lightening efficiency, we can’t expect them to have advocacy skills enough to make them advocate for clients. Surely they are incapable of making persuasive arguments!
They don’t have empathy too, nor the ability to build trust with clients which is an essential quality for lawyers.
They don’t have any moral or ethical sensibilities nor the ability to distinguish between right or wrong. And the fact they are machines in point of fact means they can’t act independently and would only act subject to human supervision, in this case lawyers.
So that should rule out the question whether these AI’s are here to take away our jobs. To my way of thinking, AI’s will only compliment lawyers in their core job areas, especially in the area of legal research as we are seeing with “ROSS”.
They will also require collaboration with lawyers and not the opposite. Their application in legal research will not only help them research like bosses, but will also save lawyers the time they often spend researching and trying to filter out relevant cases to an issue from tons of literature. The fact that these machines can process data faster, come up with a shortlist of relevant precedents, statutes, and with far more recall ability makes them even more suitable for lawyers in the area legal research.
But while the application of bots in the legal profession has had its positives, this has done nothing to quell dissents among lawyers. Let’s hear what the critics have to say.
What Do AI critics have to say?
Critics have weighed in on the application of AI’s to law. Some have expressed ethical concerns over reliance on machines by lawyers to provide answers to legal issues. According to them, a lawyer who relies on results provided by a computer program to determine an answer would abdicate their discretion and that would leave them open to malpractice suits. Others feel that robots rely on the biased pre-programming of their creators and this makes them prone to giving biased answers.
Should lawyers rely on AI’s or not? Let’s hear your exciting thoughts.
A youngish lawyer with penetrating insight, Patrick Herbert is the Editor-in-Chief and founder of Lawstudenthub, a site dedicated to helping new wigs find their footing in a trickily slippery legal profession and stay current with emerging developments in the legal industry. He holds an LLB from the University of Benin and a BL from the Nigerian Law School, Abuja. In his spare time, Patrick doubles as a professional writer and copyeditor.
If you have any urgent enquiries, you can email him @[email protected]