Robots aren’t such a big threat to lawyers, say top academics

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By Alex Aldridge on

Predictions of solicitors and barristers’ imminent demise are premature


Fears that lawyers could be replaced by robots and other artificial intelligence technologies are being overplayed, a pair of leading academics have argued.

In a paper published over the new year entitled ‘Can Robots Be Lawyers?’, University of North Carolina School of Law’s Dana Remus and Frank Levy, an MIT economist, considered which parts of lawyers’ jobs could be automated — and the answer wasn’t all that many.

Apparently lawyers’ typical activities fall within a branch of human behaviour that is very difficult to codify, with even current e-discovery software still reliant on major input from human members of the legal profession.

Still, away from the creative, unpredictable and empathic work done by skilled lawyers, there is — as trainee solicitors well know — a considerable amount of grunt work. Happily, Remus and Levy have calculated that this mindless drudgery that could be automated only accounts for 13% of all legal work.

Even more reassuringly, they reckon the pace of automation is pretty slow, and that this relatively small fraction of codifiable tasks will take a number of years to switch from human to computer. The failure to set the world alight of legal start-ups like LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer — that aid in the preparation of legal documents — was cited as evidence to back up this proposition.

Remus and Levy’s study corresponds with recent research by Oxford University pair Michael Osborne and Carl Frey, who concluded that solicitors and barristers are among the professionals least likely to be replaced by robots.

But these findings contradict futurologist Professor Richard Susskind’s recent treatise ‘The Future of the Professions’, which he penned with his son, in which he dramatically argues that professions like law are “on the brink of a period of fundamental and irreversible change”.

Lawyers, forecasts Susskind, will become as redundant as the medieval ‘tallow chandlers’ and ‘cordwainers’, and the lawyerless client will become a staple feature of society.