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Are Lawyers in Danger? The Impact of technology on law as we know it - from Ebony Ezekwesili

Posted by: Laurence Simons 03/05/16
Does technology pose a threat to the traditional way lawyers do business?

Whether it’s a danger or an opportunity is a matter of perception, but there is no denying that new technology aimed at helping the legal industry perform more efficiently is making a slow but exciting emergence into the profession. 

In a tech-savvy era dominated by the Internet, mobile phones, apps and tablets, many industries have undergone revolutionary changes. From music to newspapers and taxi services, all sectors have had to adapt to the seemingly unavoidable. So it is somewhat remarkable that the legal industry has been able to shield itself from the cultural shifts happening around it, successfully continuing with business as usual. 

Yet with rising legal costs and clients who are increasingly unhappy with the length of time an instruction may take to complete, new technology is paving the way for the use of artificial intelligence (A.I.) in law, promising to produce answers to legal questions in half the time and at half the cost to clients. Businesses like ROSS Intelligence, who describe themselves as digital legal experts, aim to reduce the amount of time lawyers spend on lengthy and repetitive research tasks, by using A.I. to help ROSS “read the law”. Their vision, according to their mission statement “is to create the world’s smartest lawyer”.

Any desire to introduce changes to the legal profession to aid cost-cutting measures will be music to clients’ ears, as many corporations have sought to reduce the amount of money they spend on legal fees. Shell surprised everyone last month when they announced they were slashing their global legal panel of 250 firms to just 6. They also signed appropriate fee arrangements (AFAs) with all 6 firms in favour of the more traditional hourly rates based system. With AFAs ensuring that a fixed fee will be paid to the firms regardless of the length of time taken to complete any work, the associate general counsel Gordon McCue said “having rates in place at a level we’re satisfied with is still important…there’s a clear expectation we run all our legal matters on AFAs now”.

Whilst legal technology is still in its infancy, its rise is fuelled by a great ambition for it to grow and play an even more significant role in daily legal life, eventually carrying out more complex legal work. There are murmurings that the technology could even grow to replace lawyers entirely, as its vast database, lightening speeds and cost-efficient processes will make the role of a traditional lawyer entirely redundant. Whether that it is possible, or whether the status of lawyers is too prestigious to overcome, remains to be seen. What is for certain though, is that if lawyers want to continue doing what they do best and provide excellent client service, they will need to embrace the benefits that technology offers, even if that means accepting the potential risks as well.

Tagged In: Digital
Recent Comments
Check the recently published book - future of the professions: They outline the dawn of a new era of AI where machine learning enables computers to be able to perform the functions lower level professionals currently do. This raises all sorts of questions including: 1 - Assuming perfect AI at what point do we draw the line, i.e. what are we happy to automate, what should always be decided by people? 2 - How do newly qualified professionals learn on the job if their tasks are automated? 3 - What are the implications for training contracts and how people become qualified lawyers? If Law firms start to no longer need trainees for process led tasks that can be automated, will the profession need to introduce an equivalent to an ACCA, whereby people can become fully qualified Lawyers without needing one?
James Chaplin, 03 May 2016
Hi James, thanks very much for your comment. I’ve come across Richard Susskind’s work a couple of times and his opinions regarding technology and the law are very intriguing. In terms of the points you’ve made, I couldn’t agree more with the questions these pose to the legal system - if indeed the use of AI and other forms of technology take hold in legal practice. As you suggest, trainees are particularly at risk as law firms would have to balance the competing interests of delivering accurate and prompt client service at low rates versus the need to preserve the quality of a two-year training scheme that enjoys a worldwide reputation. It’s an interesting dilemma…
Ebony Ezekwesili, 05 May 2016
I doubt that the technology can substitute the art of negotiation, trust relationship, and knowledge of local culture.
alex, 11 May 2016
Thanks for your comment Alex. I think technology could master a good grasp of local culture knowledge, depending on how extensive the database is. I agree with you though that it would be difficult to replace very human aspects of law, including negotiation skills and building a rapport with clients. But tasks like legal research are definitely up for grabs, I believe.
Ebony Ezekwesili, 13 May 2016
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