“The robots are coming! The robots are coming!” The Paul Revere-like warning isn’t necessarily out of a science fiction book. It speaks to a growing concern many industries are facing: the increasing trend of replacing human workers with what we’ll loosely call “robots”. What’s even more striking though is that it’s not just affecting lower-skilled jobs. Industries previously perceived as highly skilled are facing this future. That means architects, doctors, and, yes, even lawyers may increasingly find robots replacing them in the workplace.
According to researchers, 47% of U.S. jobs could be automated in the next twenty years. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. In his upcoming non-fiction book, Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future, author Martin Ford writes of a jobless future where humans rely on machines to supply income. The upshot? Humans get to live more meaningful, productive lives with reduced income inequality across the board. Until then however, Ford warns workers that any primarily repetitive job can be replaced by a machine, lawyers included:
Could another person learn to do your job by studying a detailed record of everything you’ve done in the past? Or could someone become more proficient by repeating the tasks you’ve already completed …? If so, then there’s a good chance that an algorithm may someday be able to learn to do much, or all, of your job.”
As the past ten years have shown, lawyers are not immune to our future robot overlords. In a New York Times article about automated document review, one specialist observed that white collar criminals tend to split fewer infinitives when they think the FBI is reading their email. A robot could find that in the time it takes a human lawyer to blink an eye. Another in-house counsel decided to use an e-discovery platform to redo the work his company’s lawyers had done in the 1980s and 1990s. Turns out his lawyers were only 60% accurate. He lamented: “Think about how much money had been spent to be slightly better than a coin toss.”
Can Robots Be Good Lawyers?
Consider what we do as lawyers on a day-to-day basis. How much of that could be replaced (or has already been replaced) by robots? We’re not just talking about data rooms or e-discovery. Think larger. Let’s take probabilities in litigation, for example, one broad type of legal advice. What’s the better approach here – settlement or litigation? What’s the likelihood a judge will grant a motion to dismiss on this particular issue? What case law should I cite in a summary judgment motion? What jurors are most likely to rule in my favor? What are my chances on appeal? With the right data and algorithms, a computer could answer those questions faster and possibly more accurately than a lawyer can. And trust me, Silicon Valley is already on the case.
But is this really a good thing for the legal system? Aside from the obvious impact it will have in driving down the demand for lawyers, is the law the type of industry that can—and more importantly, should—operate with limited human interaction and judgment? On the one hand, automation of the industry will make legal services more affordable to the average American. But on the other hand, doesn’t the complexity of the law, the sensitive nature of matters, the people involved in the cases, and the constantly evolving doctrine, demand humanity in the process?
Ethics for Robots
Take a look at Professor Josh Blackman’s short, easy-to-read, SSRN paper, “Robot, Esq.” Professor Blackman points out the ethical and jurisprudential issues of relying on robots for legal services. He argues that before we continue to advance robots for legal services, we must first ask if we should.
Allowing [robots] to dispense legal advice without a human intermediary raises several very important questions. Would an attorney-client relationship be possible if a networked distributed algorithm is used by many robots? What about the rules of confidentiality if the robot’s algorithms are improved by sharing and aggregating litigation strategies from other cases? What about conflicts of interest? If two opposing parties are both represented by [the same software], how would the algorithms handle that conflict? What about asking [robots] to do “the right thing”? Can we program the ethos of Atticus Finch?”
Despite the doom and gloom foreboding for our legal industry, there is certainly still a role for the future lawyer. The Preamble to our Rules of Professional Conduct explains the four hats lawyers wear: advisor, advocate, negotiator, and evaluator. The goal for the future lawyer living in the Robot Era is to find the “sweet spot” between the unique value-add of an attorney – as advisor, advocate, negotiator and evaluator – and the immense cost and efficiency savings for clients already used to robots in the workplace. And the sweet spot does exist. Even the most pessimistic of reports, for example one by UK-based Jomati Consultants, still see a potential role for lawyers in our AI future:
[To] sustain margins a law firm would have to show added value elsewhere, such as in high-level advisory work … clients would instead greatly value the human input of the firm’s top partners, especially those that could empathise with the client’s needs and show real understanding and human insight into their problems.”
Yes, the robots are definitely coming. The question is – where should we as a legal profession stand when they arrive?
A version of this post was previously published in the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin.