Robot Lawyers? The Future of the Legal Profession

Last year, the Associated Press released a three-part series on which jobs are being lost to new technology. Their research found that nearly all of the disappearing jobs are not low-paid, low-skilled positions, but rather reasonably-paid, traditionally middle-class professions including lawyers, loan officer and more. While jobless recovery and new technological advancements pose a more immediate risk to clerical, manufacturing and retail workers, academics at both MIT and  Oxford predict that new technologies will cause joblessness in knowledge-based professions “ including the law” in the not-so-distant future.

The rapid rate at which digital technologies are advancing means that computers and robots are quickly acquiring the skills and abilities of “ordinary” employees. When a programmer is able to replace a worker with software, it cuts costs, increases productivity and, if done successfully, improves quality.

The sophistication of artificial intelligence in new technologies has grown expeditiously in recent years; so too has its demand. China is the world’s largest robot  market. Last week the European Commission announced a 700 million-euro investment in robotics, plus‚¬2.1 billion in private funds. If a robot can outrun Usain Bolt and assess the geology of  Mars,  surely  it can review legal case files.

So when can I start sending WALL-E to chambers?

Well, not yet. But, like other businesses, law firms are finding ways of adapting to the demands of the Information Age, and some are even staying ahead of the curve.

Wortzmans, a tech-savvy Toronto firm, is pioneering  e-discovery  in Canada. e-Discovery was created in response to the growing volumes of electronic evidence used in litigation. The process involves the preservation, collection, processing and review of massive amounts of electronic data using digital forensics. Evidence is extracted and analyzed using predictive coding, a way of teaching a computer to automatically classify electronic documents based on statistical analysis and machine-learned techniques.

The discovery process can be extremely costly for clients and firms, particularly in complex commercial litigation. In an  interview  with the Globe and Mail, Wortzmans founder Susan Wortzman said that if she was handed 400,000 emails by a client before e-discovery, her response would have been, “Okay, I’ll put 60 review lawyers reviewing them for three months and it’s going to cost a million dollars. Now, if handed a hard drive with 400,000 emails she can say, We’ll electronically cull it down to 25,000 emails and we’l have five people reviewing it and we’ll be done in a week.”

But internet and digital technology do not always need to be advanced in order to change the game.

The development of credible, online legal encyclopedias and advice centers are providing information to people for free at their fingertips. Much like how Mayo Clinic and WebMD forever changed the doctor-patient relationship, platforms such as Avvo in the U.S. or Clicklaw in B.C. are empowering people with legal concerns, regardless of income or educational background.

Technology will not reduce the need for lawyers. It can, however, mean that fewer lawyers will be needed to tackle complex cases, with possibly less financial investment. Tasks currently completed by junior lawyer associates will be increasingly delegated to computers, allowing young lawyers to gain more advanced experience sooner. Paralegals will manage sophisticated IT as part of their job description.

Lawyers, and even judges, will have to adapt. For example, Australia uses eCourtroom, a virtual courtroom, in the hearing of some matters before the Federal Court of Australia or Federal Circuit Court of Australia, such as bankruptcy proceedings. American firms are experimenting with quantitative legal prediction for the odds of winning a case and how much it will cost. The University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Law now offers a course in The Laws of Robotics.

The reality is that it is impossible to predict how much of a lawyer’s job will one day be that of a machine. In the meantime, go ask your articling student for a court record on microfiche. You’re bound to get a funny look.

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