How Automation Is Changing the Legal Industry

Rapid advances in artificial intelligence and automation processes have led some lawyers to worry that their profession may be next on the technology chopping block. Those actively engaged in the industry will undoubtedly know that many changes have already occurred. But the future remains uncertain.

Legal educational systems are moving slowly to address the changing landscape that their graduates with be thrust into - which leaves many aspiring lawyers (and practising ones too) in a state of flux. There are a huge number of variables at play here - market forces, generational dynamics and a more technically literate public.  But one thing is certain: disruption in the legal industry will continue.

One person who knows this all too well is Zac Bingham. Zac is an ex-corporate lawyer turned biz development manager for legal automation software startup Automio. We recently had him on the Beyond Billables podcast, and he had this to say:

Our clients are waking up to the fact that we’re not magicians, they’re demanding more for less. They want service, and technology is one of the only ways law firms can successfully respond to this. But based on what I see out there in the market, in terms of AI and automation, things are still very early stage. This may be the ground floor of huge change in the profession.

Zac’s sentiments are echoed by a recent article in the New York Times. ‘Strides have been made but even the people working on the software meant to automate legal work say the adoption of AI in law firms will be a slow, task-by-task process,’ the article says. ‘In other words, like it or not, a robot is not about to replace your lawyer. At least, not anytime soon.’ There is a common misconception that leads people to believe that if a segment of a job can be automated, the rest will soon follow.

This is a fallacy. But that isn’t to say that changes aren’t coming. ‘The 2020s will be the decade of disruption,’ says Professor Richard Susskind, co-author of The Future of the Professions: How Technology Will Transform the Work of Human Experts. More and more attorneys are taking heed of this warning and leaving the law to join a startup, work on something else or pivot into a consulting job. These people are following the model Zac embraced, and more would likely be wise to follow suit.

But before everyone jumps overboard, let's take a look at some developments in the automation area.

  • In the early-to-mid 2000s, technology began to nibble away at some core legal tasks, as law firms toyed with software that could streamline the document review process. These efforts continue to churn along unabated and are becoming default practice. Gone are the days when 50 to 70 junior employees would do this type of painstaking but important paperwork.

  • An artificial intelligence technique called natural language processing has been introduced not all that long ago, and has shown itself to be helpful in scanning and predicting which documents will be relevant to a certain case. That means less busy work for people working in the legal industry.

  • In the UK, some firms have picked up an AI system when they work on certain types of property disputes. Developed by Ravn, a legal technology startup, this system extracts data from official title deeds produced by the UK Land Registry. The protocol cross checks these details so they can serve legal notices on the right people in real estate matters. This process used to take a lot of man hours to get done, but now it's as simple as a handful of clicks.

  • Well-known tech-based legal services providers such as LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer have also ramped up their offerings. In terms of document creation, things like wills and living trusts, business formation documents, copyright registrations and trademark applications are now technologically streamlined. These may be the first two through the door, but many other startups are crowding in behind.

  • An article in Computer Weekly notes that in 2016, ‘a London court supported the use of predictive coding software in a legal disclosure process, which often involves lawyers receiving huge volumes of documents from those representing the other side in a case.’ This was another stride forward for technology and further encroachment onto the turf of legal work.

These bullets points are only a scratch on the surface of a tide that is running in a deep and powerful way. Exactly how fast things are moving is hard to say. According to Deloitte, about 114,000 legal jobs are likely to be automated in the next 20 years. But compare this against research cited by NPR that says ‘current technology is replacing roughly 2 percent of a lawyer's total workload each year.’  Predicting adoption rates and how new technology will impact a large and complex industry is quite a difficult thing to do.

If plunging law school application rates are a signal to be taken seriously, prospective lawyers are taking the rise of automation and AI into consideration. This isn’t necessarily the attack of the robot lawyers, however. Many other legal tasks, like advising clients, writing briefs, negotiating and appearing in court, still appear well beyond the reach of computerisation, for now at least.  The bottom line is this: change is already here, and more is coming.

Quibbling about the rate or state of change isn’t terribly helpful. Hand-wringing about the way things have always been done isn’t either. The better approach? Emulate Zac, don’t take things too seriously, but do explore other options outside of a conventional law career. Be creative, you never know where it might take you.