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Don’t Fear the Robot, Says Richard Susskind

July 8, 2016, 1:46 PM

It may sound outlandish to hear about law firms building software programs to help navigate increasingly complex regulatory regimes, but it’s not fiction.

Last week, Big Law Business reported on how Allen & Overy and Axiom both have developed software — that cuts out a component of work that would otherwise have been handled by humans — to help banks deal with new regulations on derivative contracts.

To answer whether the future is now, and we’ll see more legal work performed by machines we tracked down the U.K.-based technologist Richard Susskind, a close observer of the legal profession who earlier this year co-authored the book, “The Future of the Professions.”

The short answer is that technology won’t be replacing lawyers anytime in the next few years, according to Susskind.

“The dominant way of reducing costs [for legal services] is essentially new labor models,” he said. “So it’s setting up a low-cost service center, offshoring, the use of paralegals, subcontracting to less costly lawyers.”

“What all of these have in common is it’s still human beings,” Susskind added.

But give it a couple years, say until 2020 and things will be different.

“The 20’s is going to be the decade of disruption,” Susskind predicted.

Technology is already increasingly capable of performing new services, he explained, offering a few examples. In e-Discovery, new search platforms are making it easier to locate documents. In due diligence, there is technology is able to identify anomalous terms in a contract. Contract automation and contract life cycle management have changed the way repetitive tasks are handled to remove some of the human element, Susskind said.

It turns out Allen & Overy, and its partner Deloitte, are both his clients and he’s a fan of their project to develop software that automated part of the derivative contract process.

“I think this technology will take off in the 20s,” said Susskind. “What I’m saying is law firms have really got to use these next four years to hire the right people and invest in R&D. I just don’t think law will be practiced in the same way in the 20s.”

As to the story of a robot called DoNotPay that fights parking tickets which gained notoriety in recent weeks, Susskind said it was another good example of a technology that had a legal diagnostics ability. His only quibble was why anyone would call it a robot.

“Why would you want it to have arms and legs and a head?” he asked. “We should define it in terms of what it does, and I don’t think it’s helpful to call it a robot.”

As more technology comes online, the big question in his mind is who will develop the technology and implement it? In-house counsel, which tend to work on documents in high volume batches, may be better positioned to justify investing resources to automate some of that work. On the other hand, outside lawyers have the resources and ability to do so, too, if they hire systems analysts, developers, data scientists and others to help them, Susskind said.

“The future for law firms is very much in their own hands is my answer,” he said. “But if law firms decide they’re not going to engage and employ law firm technologists and data scientists and so on,” others such as accounting firms and alternative service providers will eat their lunch.

UPDATED:An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Susskind advised Allen & Overy and Deloitte on their project that uses software to automate work for banks. He did not advise on that project.