Is the inexorable advancement of technology an opportunity or a threat for the legal profession?

A couple of weeks ago I spoke on a panel at the ILTACON conference in Las Vegas in a session entitled "Legal Technology Innovation - Bolstering AND Destroying the Legal Profession". It was a follow-up to a session last year entitled "Do Robot Lawyers Dream of Billable Seconds?" and a reunion of the same panel that consisted of myself, Ryan McClead from Norton Rose Fulbright, Joshua Lenon from Clio, Noah Waisberg from Kira Systems and Michael Mills from Neota Logic.

Ryan McClead is also posting summaries from all of the speakers on the panel on 3 Geeks and a Law Blog, starting with his own on the "The Napsterization of Legal Services".

What follows is a summary of the 5-minute talk I gave on the subject as my contribution to the panel.

A lot has happened in the AI world in the last year. Robots can now create art, learn how to play computer gamescategorise buildings and even determine how creative a painting is. But I think we can all agree that the most exciting development in computing this year has to be the IBM food truck, which combines cognitive computing, big data and the cloud to invent delicious new food. The perfect combination for us techies :)

However, no one has taught a computer how to be a lawyer just yet. Various people and organisations are working on it and, as we discussed last year, I think it’s only a matter of time before we do eventually create machines that can learn how to be lawyers and they will replace many functions in the legal sector. In my mind there is no doubt about that. White collar jobs will be taken by machines in the same way that many blue collar jobs have been. It’s just a matter of when, not if. Arguably it's already happening.

The famous economist John Maynard Keynes popularised the term “Technological unemployment” in the 1930s to give a name to the process of losing jobs to technical innovations. This is a problem that humans have been wrestling with for centuries and there have been many examples of it in the past, since we started using tools to help us become more efficient.

The Industrial Revolution is a great example of technical innovations having profound effects on jobs and on wider society. It was brought about by a combination of three primary innovations in textile manufacturing processes, steam power and iron founding. Together, innovation in these three sectors acted to transform what were traditionally specialised, cottage industries into highly industrialised, automated, mass production processes, displacing many highly skilled workers, such as artisan weavers and cotton spinners, in the process. Their skills had been commoditised by machines that were faster, more efficient and cheaper.

More modern examples of technological unemployment include self-checkout kiosks in grocery stores and biometric scanners at checkpoints in airports. So I think it's clear that the incredible pace of technological advancement definitely has an effect on jobs and entire industries. 

But it's not all bad news. Technology also creates new types of work and new jobs. All of the panelists at the ILTACON session were only there because our jobs and our companies have arisen out of technological advancements that we're trying to apply to legal processes. To take another example, think about the "App economy" created by the boom in smartphones. In 2007 it didn’t exist and in 2015 it’s expected to be a $100 billion industry. Literally millions of jobs and massive wealth has been created as a result of these innovations. Have workers had to adapt and learn new skills? Absolutely. But the overall amount of work in the world economy continues to grow, not shrink, as technology advances.

So in the short to medium term, I think technology will create at least as many jobs as it destroys. But skills will shift and people will need to become more technical in order to stay relevant. Some jobs will completely disappear but new ones will emerge to take their place.

In the legal sector this means many legal processes are being automated and optimised. We will get to the point in the not very distant future (or now?) where junior lawyers will not need to sit and wade through thousands of contracts in a due diligence process; a machine will do it for them. But new opportunities will arise for hybrid "Legal Engineers" who will need to understand law AND technology in order to best utilise those machines and leverage their capabilities to gain a competitive advantage for their firms.

So I can see, in the short term, that basic legal processes will be automated and then, gradually, as machines become more sophisticated, they will be capable of performing more complex legal functions and there will be a shift from being "lawyers" in the traditional sense, to being legal developers or technicians. At this point, we will still need the most bespoke and sophisticated legal work to be carried out by humans. Indeed, the very concept of machines taking over more and more human work may actually increase the demand for lawyers to sort out the societal complexities and disputes that will inevitably arise.

But what about the long term, 30-50 years from now?

Last year I talked about the "Technological Singularity" which is the theory that the exponential advancement of technology will ultimately lead to artificial intelligence exceeding human intelligence.

There is a general consensus among futurists that this will happen sometime in the 21st century, probably in the next 50 years or so. At this point, the question is no longer about whether lawyers will still have a job, it's about what will happen to society. Will it be a Star Trek-like utopia where man will leverage machines to better themselves and explore the Galaxy? Or will it be a Terminator-like dystopian nightmare? Who knows. But one thing is for sure, technology is changing everything and it will happen in our lifetime.

To listen to a recording of the panel in full and download materials, please visit the ILTACON website.


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