Robots Are Coming for Your Job in Legal Services

As long there have been people, there have been efforts to find someone else to do the really tough jobs. Cultures across the globe have used slaves, servants, serfs, mercenaries, and modern-day interns to perform the heavy lifting—sometimes literally.

The start of the Industrial Revolution took this concept to the next level; machines were created that could more efficiently perform certain tasks, doing them faster, longer, more accurately, and for less money than human workers. The push toward more automation has stimulated the manufacturing industry and economies across the globe. Just consider how much a car would cost if it were assembled by hand over a month (rather than the hundreds of automobiles cranked out in a few hours). Now apply the same logic to creating a hardcover novel, a pair of running shoes, or any object among our modern bounty of consumer goods. It’s clear that our standard of living depends on machines.

Today, robots and other automated processes have become useful across many industries. They have impacted everything from security systems that monitor building entrances and exits to human resource programs that scan applications and automatically reject the ones lacking certain keywords.

There’s even a fully automated factory in Japan that now uses robots to make other robots. Apart from maintaining a few humans to troubleshoot hardware or software problems, the workforce is perfect. They don’t need breaks; they don’t get disgruntled or call in sick; and they don’t need heat or even light to do their job.

Advancements in artificial intelligence are causing more forward-thinking engineers to consider how automation can make things easier for other industries. Employers can benefit from less labor costs and a smaller workforce, while employees who have certain critical thinking skills, creative insights, and academic credentials can be even more prized.

Public Radio International (2016) projected that 30 percent of activities across 60 percent of all jobs will be automated in the next decade. Jobs in these areas may not necessarily be eliminated, but they will be forever changed. Even more dramatic warnings came from the BBC in 2017, which predicted that nearly half of U.S. jobs and 35 percent of U.K. jobs will be replaced due to automation—not to mention a majority of jobs in developing countries. It won’t be just the blue-collar jobs that are impacted either, as AI is steadily creeping into white collar, professional jobs.

Figuring out which industry is ripe for this sort of disruption is the big question for analysts. The correct answer seems to be “any or all of them.” For instance, in the near future, look for robots that can make and deliver your pizza or ones that can accurately deliver your customized news direct from a source without any human or political filters.

How about the legal profession? Can Siri turn you into a courtroom brawler and suggest the best Perry Mason closing arguments? Can Alexa quickly retrieve obscure precedents that would have taken a clerk weeks of digging through a dusty law library?

We might not be there yet, but we’re getting pretty close, as automation can offer new opportunities for legal professionals willing to adapt and focus on helping more clients navigate the legal system—leaving some of the routine paperwork and procedural tasks to non-humans.

Continue reading for insight into this shift toward automation in the legal profession.

How is AI Replacing Legal Workers?

The whole legal system is based on complex procedural machinery and supported by important (albeit dull) busy work—a makeup which begets plenty of potential for automation. Deloitte, a multinational firm that spans various industries, predicts a “profound transformation” of the legal industry in the next decade. This is not just in terms of automation, but also in the types of human employees needed. Instead of a firm focusing on the same, specialized types of cases and employees, the report suggests that future employees will need different skills sets and interests. Firms may also have fewer direct employees but more contractors and temporary help.

Overall, Deloitte also argues that 39 percent of jobs in legal services (about 114,000) have the potential to become more automated, especially as firms try to be more competitive and responsive to clients. The following three areas are especially ripe for automation.

Defeating the Paperwork Beast

One of the biggest complaints in the legal profession is the overwhelming amount of paper. The job requires a lot of reading of documents, creating more of them, requesting or sharing them with others, and securely storing them. The profession is already benefiting from some obvious automation: the copiers and printers have improved our ability to duplicate records quickly. Of course, it still can require a human touch to make sure they’re all correctly ordered, signed, notarized, and filed in the right place.

Contracts often call for multiple copies for all parties, and briefs may require different drafts and versions. Judicial records and even court transcripts of trials can also consume several trees. Legal offices typically have mountains of boxes filled with documents of evidence and other research materials.

An industry-wide push to cut down on paper for environmental reasons can actually benefit automation efforts. The American Bar Association admits that some lawyers do have a soft spot for the look and feel of paper; the older and more original, the better. But at the same time, the industry is finding considerable advantages to using digital versions of paperwork. It’s easy to update a few lines of information in a brief template rather than retyping the whole thing. It keeps info in the same place, and it’s easy to search for something in a network rather than searching for the right drawer, box, desk, or shelf for a hard copy version.

Electronic records don’t just have to include a firm’s work products, either, as more evidence may come in electronically versus through the mail. These files may include phone records, photos, and even video files. Less focus on the need for hard copies could mean less demand for clerks who spend all day copying, collating, sorting, and filing.

So how can future paralegals and others prepare for a growing reliance on machines? Not surprisingly, people wanting to learn usable skills can focus on using computers well, including database management and network design. Computer-savvy clerks can supply attorneys with access to different information upon request. They also ensure that any sent information can be accessed easily, such as different document types or software versions. Furthermore, someone with an archival or library science background—especially with related professional experience—could be useful as offices begin their inevitable shift toward using more electronic files.

‘Smart’ Reading of Big Data

One area that’s especially exciting to some (and perhaps scary to others) is natural language processing. It’s essentially a program that not only scans legal documents but ‘understands’ them—or at least can make educated guesses as to the proper context based on keywords and how it can relate to other similar documents and cases.

Traditionally, lesser-skilled employees may have been given the role of reading, summarizing, and remembering large amounts of information, but software that performs these functions can allow them to spend their time on other projects, and also provide the same data to everyone. This process can reduce the time spent on the case, as firms will have their info sooner and more readily accessible.

Another related principle is being able to predict the outcome of future cases based on historical data. What used to be an educated guess could now have some data behind it, as predictive analysis software can allow attorneys to develop algorithms for cases. These are based on past judicial rulings, local jury decisions, similar cases in other jurisdictions, and even recently scanned documents. These tools can offer a guide to attorneys preparing a case or looking at different options such as settlement agreements or pushing for a trial. It could even help advise an attorney in the odds of even taking a case at all. A clerk or attorney able to utilize these types of programs to find connections can be in high demand, especially if their data is seen to directly impact the outcome of a case.

Replacing the Legal Assistant

One of the lures of advancing in the legal profession has been that if you work hard enough, you may get an assistant who is eager to work hard to help you succeed. But not everyone gets one—tighter budgets may mean that one or two busy assistants have to work for everyone.

However, this tradition may be changing due to the rise of Virtual Assistants.

Companies that offer VA services perform many of the same tasks as an analog assistant. The VA can answer the phone, keep track of appointments, book travel, and sort emails. They can contact clients with basic requests for meetings or documents, and can even help with social media marketing, correspondence, and billing, as well.

If this trend catches on and more attorneys use their own VAs, it could mean less of a need for real-life assistants. Alternatively, instead of a pool of lower-skilled assistants who perform basic office functions, a firm could seek someone with stronger financial skills to confirm billable hours and provide other checks on automated processes.

It’s worth noting that not all of the prospects are bleak for clerks, paralegals, or interns. This trend toward VAs could create more opportunities for mentorship, since instead of being buried in paperwork or phone calls, these people can spend more face-to-face time with their assigned attorney.

What is the Future of the Legal Profession?

The jury is still out (pun intended) on how much automation will change the legal landscape.

It’s likely to help firms keep better track of their data and everyone to use their time better, but will there be skilled ‘Virtual Attorneys’ soon? Not likely.

Many legal experts believe there are too many human factors that even the smartest AI can’t duplicate. This includes being able to adapt to the changing conditions of a case; to decide which case or client needs more priority at any given point in time; or to come up with the most persuasive arguments in the courtroom. While a ‘smart’ system may be able to give the pros and cons of different settlement offers or probabilities of varying outcomes, human perceptions are more useful in these discussions, such as skill at reading emotion and nonverbal communication.

How this industry transformation shakes out is still unknown, but one analysis showed that not having to read as many documents for context and reference can save time per client, possibly leading to:

  • Less reading for junior attorneys or office staff, who can instead focus on other duties and training
  • A lower cost of legal services (assuming clients are only paying for a main attorney and not all the ancillary staff)
  • A push for more billable hours and more clients to make up for potential lost revenue from not having to charge as much for reading and analysis
  • A need for fewer attorneys and support staff at larger firms, or more temporary and contract help

Some of these advances may actually help equalize the legal profession. Where previously the larger firms provided access to legions of assistants or paralegals for basic work, many of these services may now be accessible to any size firm. Virtual Assistants, for instance, can include help with phone calls and administrative tasks, allowing the attorney to focus on clients and cases.

Analysts have varied predictions about what this will mean. Can smaller firms charge more since they now can offer services they couldn’t before? Or will they charge less to be more appealing to future clients who don’t need a lot of technical help? Will larger firms reduce their prices since they have less overhead? Or will they raise their prices, saying clients should pay more for the brain power and higher-level state-of-the-art analytics? Will clients not request as much since they may be able to do some research and preparation themselves, and may just need a lawyer’s signature?

The push for automation may be beneficial for the industry. If more legal tasks become automated, that will increase the value of ‘human’ skills like creativity that can’t be duplicated by machines. It also can open up a whole new career track within the profession for legal technology experts, who are responsible for maintaining the tools to help the firm and clients make sense of the data.

In sum, veteran attorneys may not know where to begin with analytic software or a Virtual Assistant, but someone with computer skills combined with legal skills can become one of the more valuable members of a team in the brave new world of legal automation. Of course, if there are less available jobs in legal services and other industries due to automation, how will people make a living? This challenge is beyond the scope of this article, but one thing is for sure: the solution will require distinctly human creativity and compassion.

Joe Butler
Joe Butler

Joe Butler is an accomplished writer and editor in the Northwest with more than 20 years of experience publishing in newspapers, magazines, and specialty websites. He graduated from Central Washington University with a degree in mass communications and has worked with a variety of clients nationwide. Joe lives near Spokane, WA, where he writes, reads, and collects spoons as well as the cheapest, plastic snow-globes he can find.

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