Domo Arigato, Mister Roboto (Esq.)

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By Dean R P Edwards

“My lawyer’s such a lifeless tool” might be soon closer to the truth as the day approaches when your lawyer (or at least their paralegals) may well be tools.

By tools, I mean machines. Computerised, automated workers, part of a wave of technological innovation that promises to sweep in the real “Knowledge Economy”. And that day’s not too far off, if recent reports are to be believed.

Oxford researchers released a report a few years ago entitled The Future of Employment: How Susceptible are Jobs to Computerisation?, which the BBC and other media outlets, such as the U.S. public radio provider NPR, have turned into convenient guides. Users can select to see which of today’s professions are more likely than not to be automated in the next 20 years.

While the researchers are in no way certifying the accuracy of their prognostication, one can make an educated guess as to what legal jobs are going the way of HAL.

If the Future of Employment folks are onto something, there’s a 94.5% chance that paralegals and legal assistants will be computerised in the next two decades. The upshot for lawyers, however, is a mere 3.5% chance of being replaced by computer. Judges and other legal professionals fall somewhere on the side of improbability.

The numbers make some sense.

Take for instance conveyancing, contracts and other areas where legal drafting is largely precedent based and data driven. It won’t involve a huge technological leap for today’s document management software (like LEAP) to take on many of the tasks currently delegated to legal assistants. The work is mostly routine and computers are more capable of handling attention to detail, especially the details that are form-based less intellectually sophisticated.

There are plenty of other concerns to address – computers and their own errors, computers and the ethics of decision-making – but one can safely assume the future will see a legal profession where the registrars and conveyancers, paralegals and secretaries go the way of the nineteenth century loom workers.

But lawyers are, for the most part, a different kettle of fish.

While we may see driverless cars one day soon, we probably won’t come across driverless litigation. Complex legal processes require human input and ingenuity. Lawyers’ work involves knowledge of legal principles, highly technical arguments and the ability to apply the knowledge and arguments to a variety of factual scenarios.  Where there’s a case, there’s likely a place for a human lawyer to interact with clients and the other side, the courts and the bureaucracy.

Lawyers bring more to the table than just technical knowhow. They can provide advice specific to the case as well as gauge clients’ interests (and personality). Perhaps those are tasks that future computers may be able to handle, but that future is much farther down the track.

What should young lawyers take away from this technotalk?

Lawyers might think ahead of how those changes will affect things in the profession and further afield. Advances in workplace technology will assist the legal profession by streamlining workflows and interaction with judicial and other state institutions, but those same advances will cull lower and entry level jobs. One might imagine that outsourcing jobs would also become easier and more common.

The Future of Employment interactive guides, and any of the above speculation, dabble in possibilities, not certainties. But technological change is certainly around the corner. The legal profession often plays catch-up with technology; what does the future hold when technology begins to replace the professionals

It’s surely worth some contemplation.