The Demise of the Artisanal Lawyer

The University of Oxford’s study revealed that 47% of jobs today could be replaced by computers, including cognitive and evaluative roles. While lawyers have a low risk of displacement, paralegals and legal assistants face a 94% chance of being replaced. The rise of AI in law could disrupt traditional apprenticeship models and requires the legal industry to reorganize before technology claims their livelihood.

This article was first published in The Mint. You can read the original at this link.

Last year, the University of Oxford published a study on the effects of technology on employment. Among the more disconcerting findings of the report was the revelation that, on average, 47% of all jobs today are likely to be replaced by computers. The report cited a widening gap between productivity and pay, indicating that ordinary workers are increasingly unable to keep up with the rate of technological change—their skills constantly being made redundant by new computer technologies.

This is not the first time the workforce has suffered on account of a tectonic shift in technology. The last time this happened was during the early days of industrialization, when scores of skilled craftsmen were put out of business—their handicrafts replaced by industrial mass production. Over the long run, the [[Industrial Revolution]] benefited both the consumers and the producers. While assembly-line manufacturing resulted in the de-skilling of the traditional workforce, the mechanization of production eventually led to overall reductions in the cost of goods that made a larger variety of products more widely available.

This time around, it feels as though a lot more blood is going to be spilt. The changes being wrought by modern digital technologies are far more fundamental and pervasive than anything that has come before. Computers are replacing not just clerical and repetitive production tasks, but also cognitive and evaluative jobs. Big data and machine learning algorithms have begun to chip away at skills long thought to be the exclusive preserve of [[human intelligence]]. As a result, specialized tasks such as language translation, fraud detection and even cancer treatment diagnostics are being handled (in most cases, more efficiently) by computers.

I was heartened to observe that on the list of jobs most likely to be replaced by robots, lawyers are close to the bottom—with just a 3.5% chance of being displaced. What was somewhat less comforting was the fact that there is a 94% chance that paralegals and legal assistants will be replaced by computers. If that comes to pass, it will shake the very foundation of the business of law.

Law is practised today in much the same way as it has for centuries. Modern law firms may be large multinational organizations but when you strip away the veneer, even the most advanced law firm in the world is built around an inherently artisanal framework. At the heart of this structure is the concept that your legal education is not done until you have successfully completed an apprenticeship. Law firms leverage this by filling up the lower ranks of their organization with an army of paralegals, trainees and first-year associates.

These lawyers perform relatively mundane but important tasks of research and documentation in exchange for the opportunity to hone their skills on live client matters. For its part, the [[law firm]] benefits by having trained lawyers to perform simple jobs at a lower cost. This symbiotic relationship has existed for years and is fundamental to the way in which law firms are organized.

All this will change once software systems become intelligent enough to do the tasks that we have so far relied on human trainees to perform. As artificial intelligence techniques make due diligence reviews and document automation more reliable and practical, there will be no need to deploy first-year associates for these jobs. Which means that very soon, the on-the-job training model that has stood the legal industry in good stead for all these centuries will eventually be a thing of the past.

Based on the buzz in law firm management circles of late, I had the uneasy feeling that this change was already upon us. A number of organizations advertise products they claim come with viable artificial intelligence designed to benefit law firms. Last week, at a conference on Innovation in the Law, I saw some of these technologies in action and spoke with some of the international law firms that have used them. Everyone was of the view that while they are promising, the software itself has a way to go before it can come into the mainstream. Which means we lawyers have a small window of time within which to figure out how to reorganize ourselves before the robots claim our livelihood.

Then, just as I was breathing a sigh of relief, I came across a news report of a 19-year-old student who had programmed a chatbot to challenge parking tickets issued in London and New York City. At the time the article went to print, the chatbot had challenged 160,000 tickets with a 60% success rate. If a teenager with little more than an Internet connection and basic programming skills can get a functioning AI program to do a litigator’s job—the end of the world can’t be that far away.