Unrelenting progress in digital technologies is changing law firms and how lawyers work, right before our eyes. Whether you’re studying law now or you intend to do so in the near future, in a few years, what it means to “be a lawyer” might look a little different from today.
There are several legal-tech trends worth keeping your eye on that will impact law offices everywhere. And beyond that, it’s worth thinking about how the legal education, and the legal mind, will find renewed purpose in tomorrow’s technology-driven economy.
Bring fewer unnecessary cases to court
A phrase like “robot lawyer” will get clicks no matter where it shows up. We’re not quite there yet, but we’re definitely approaching a world where artificial intelligence reduces lawyers’, judges’ and legal clerks’ workloads and keeps frivolous cases out of our courts. One look at this future comes from the UK and other select cities in the world that have adopted the DoNotPay app.
DoNotPay is an AI platform that helps drivers appeal what they believe are unfair tickets and citations. After it was rolled out in the United Kingdom, drivers successfully overturned some $3 million in fines in just the first few months.
Most of the time, high-powered legal firms aren’t called in to deal with moving violations. Their interest in artificial intelligence will be in studying documents from omre complex cases in greater detail, and with greater speed, than a human legal clerk could. From there, they can determine whether a case is worth taking to trial and even, given the language and other signifiers in the documents, to which legal department the case should be referred.
Accomplish case research and ‘discovery’ faster
Practicing law successfully involves a great deal of research: into specific cases and the details and documents available, as well as into the wider world of legal precedent. On both counts, technology provides new tools for legal teams that greatly expedites the research and discovery phases of pursuing a case to a successful conclusion.
Engaging in case research and heuristic analytics using machine learning could help shave off as much as 70 percent of the expense associated with pursuing a case. One way a machine learning platform can do this is by scanning digitized copies of current and past testimonies, legal briefings and reports, old cases, published legal texts and much more — and then lifting out all of the material that has a bearing on the current case.
Will we need fewer lawyers in the future?
A recent paper explored an unrealistic but still fascinating proposal: if our entire legal apparatus immediately implemented all of the artificial intelligence and automation technologies currently available, what would the effect be on the “labor pool” in the legal industry?
Professors at the University of North Carolina School of Law wanted to find out, so they did the research. According to their paper, law firms countrywide would probably see a 13 percent decline in the number of hours worked by lawyers in their current roles. Over the following five years, lawyers would see their billable hours drop by a further 2.5 percent annually.
Again — this the fallout from adopting all available technology right now. We’re looking at a slower-moving, though still consequential, transition toward a more technology-first legal industry.
And in the meantime, lawyers will benefit from many other less attention-grabbing, though no less disruptive, legal-tech platforms and applications. It’s hard to ignore the benefits of cloud-based and mobile computing for the modern legal team — not when clients can live and do business anywhere, and where digital sovereignty and intellectual property ownership are under intense pressure from globalization.
In the grand scheme of things, we’re still going to need a considerable amount of legal talent in business and everyday life. That talent just might be repurposed to solve different problems in the near future.
Lawyers aren’t going out of style (but their jobs are changing)
Technology is driving a lot of change in the way law firms operate and how their representatives perform their work, both in the office and out in the field with clients. But we can expect this relationship to manifest in the reverse direction also: lawyers need technology these days, but technology also needs lawyers.
Picture the roughly 80 percent of “standardized” legal work that’s ripe for automation — and then imagine what other tasks all of those keen legal minds could be put to work solving. The truth is, digital technologies will always require developmental input from people who think critically and even legalistically about problem-solving, coding, development and more.
Occasional-prophet Steve Jobs saw this coming when he said “nobody should be a lawyer” but that “everybody in the country” should attend law school. He’s almost certainly right that legal thinking is uniquely valuable in the development of technologies such as the following, which have direct and indirect legal implications and consequences:
- Legally binding “smart contracts” drawn up between business entities using blockchain and other next-generation protocols.
- The “black box” of AI has enormous legal implications for driverless automobile technology, insurance companies and liability in collisions.
- Unrelenting automation and the technology-driven “gig economy” raise new questions about the legal definition of “employee” and the concept of workers’ rights.
- Algorithms shape how people interact with news and entertainment media and how they research civic issues on the internet, and there are new questions arising about citizens’ “digital civil rights.”
It goes on and on. What happens when a city decides to ban facial recognition technology? We need fair and unbiased legal thinking now, more than ever, to help us effectively discuss and then reach a consensus on each of these matters plus many more. Each of these “branches” on the technology “tree” opens up a new kind of dialogue about workers’ rights, business organization and oversight, checks and balances for free speech and journalistic malfeasance, and the pursuit of a more public discussion about the social, legal and economic ramifications of automated technologies.
No — lawyers aren’t going extinct. Far from it, in fact. We need talented, ordered, and legalistic minds more than ever, given how helpful the lawyer’s skill set is in programming and development, not to mention helping to unspin the moral and ethical webs that technology weaves around us on a daily basis.