Will Robots Replace Lawyers?

May 5, 2015, 5:52 PM

Editor’s Note: This post is written by the chief executive officer of eBrevia, a venture-backed startup commercializing artificial intelligence technology.

By Ned Gannon, Co-Founder and CEO, eBrevia

Today, lawyers are inundated with documents and data, and artificial intelligence is the best hope for managing and analyzing this information onslaught. In particular, machine learning, a subset of artificial intelligence that trains software to reproduce human decisions and make correct predictions on new, unseen data looks promising.

Broadly speaking, there is no consensus on the impact of technology on the labor market. At the inaugural Future of Work Conference in London, Arianna Huffington, co-founder and editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post, observed that “technology is allowing an enormous amount of new jobs to emerge.” On the other hand, Apple co-founder and luminary Steve Wozniak painted an apocalyptic picture in recent comments to the Australian Financial Review, warning that “computers are going to take over from humans, no question.” Wozniak predicted a future that will be “scary and very bad for people.” Between these two extremes is the view espoused by U.K. innovation think tank Nesta, “Creativity vs. Robots,” which concluded that some jobs, like office administration, are highly susceptible to computerization, whereas other, more creative professions – architects, artists, and information technology specialists – will resist automation.

So what do advances in machine learning mean for lawyers?

Within the legal field, technology has brought sweeping changes to complex litigation. eDiscovery tools and predictive coding now are as integral to practice as case law tomes were a century ago. Advances in natural language processing are poised to have a similarly transformative impact on corporate law. Enterprising companies are rapidly developing tools that allow for faster and more accurate due diligence and contract analysis, once the exclusive product of lawyers’ manual labor.

Transactional lawyers need not fear these advances. Far from being a threat to jobs, technology will allow the legal profession to blossom in a new world of creative work. Machine learning-based software reduces the amount of time lawyers must spend on rote, mechanical tasks like extracting data from contracts, leases, and other documents, allowing them instead to focus on distilling data into meaningful, actionable form.

“Big data brings the legal sector opportunities to leverage the growing volume of data they handle,” observed the Law Society Gazette, a publication of the Law Society, which represents solicitors in England and Wales. The article suggested that as big data proliferates, firms will likely hire data analysts and statisticians which “will free up lawyers for more challenging work.”

The stem of the Latin word for lawyer,advocatus, reminds us that for millennia, lawyers have been advocates, mediators, and aids. Earning the trust of clients, negotiating a deal, assessing the myriad aspects of business that go beyond data – even the most sophisticated machine cannot replicate these skills. Andrew Ng, director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory observed as much in speaking to Bloomberg Business, saying, “there will be always be work for people who can synthesize information, think critically, and be flexible in how they act in different situations.”

In twenty years a machine will help analyze data, but you will still be hiring a lawyer.

By Alex B. (Flickr/ Creative Commons)

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