The rise of the robots: Why we should be welcoming not fearing an automated future

kate2by Kate Shorney-Morris

We live in a world where we constantly rely on technology. We rely on it for timekeeping, for reminders, for networking, for socialising. Now, this dependence may have backfired, as we may soon be relying on it to do our jobs for – or instead of – us.

 

Deloitte recently predicted that the legal sector would soon be cutting 39% (over 114,000) of all jobs in favour of automated technology. They revealed that instead of rejecting this, firms would have to conform to stay on top of the competition, making it sound pretty final.

They suggest that law firms of the future will become increasingly reliant on Artificial Intelligence (AI) and robotics, which in turn will see a shift in the skills that are required among the next generation of lawyers. But for many, this view of the future isn’t anything new.

Addressing a legal conference earlier this year, Professor Richard Susskind, IT adviser to the Lord Chief Justice, warned that the legal sector has just five years to reinvent itself as being one that is made up of legal ‘technologists’ rather than legal ‘advisers’. He went on to accuse law schools of “churning out 20th-century lawyers”.

However, while it may be true that the sector has perhaps been a little late to the technology party, it would be wrong to suggest it is some sort of industry laggard.

 

Technology’s impact has already accounted for an estimated 31,000 job losses in recent years including such roles as legal secretaries, with more jobs to be placed on the “high risk” register over the next 20 years, according to Deloitte.

 

This would, at first glance, seem an anomaly given that the legal sector continues to grow year-on-year, with an additional 80,000 new roles expected to be created within the same time period – 25,000 by 2025 alone.

 

However, most of these newly created positions will be those at the higher end of the organisational chart – namely barristers and solicitors. The jobs that will be earmarked to go will be lower down in the pecking order, as Professor Susskind discusses in his book, The Future of the Professions.

In it he says that that “intelligent search systems can now outperform junior lawyers and paralegals in reviewing large sets of documents and selecting the most relevant.” And we have already started to see this in practice.

Indeed, Linklaters and Pinsent Masons, for example, have already made headway in this field with the automation of a number of mundane tasks that have traditionally been the preserve of junior lawyers.

As Edward Chan, banking partner at Linklaters, told the FT: “Previously it would have taken a trained junior lawyer an average of 12 minutes to search a single customer name.

“AI is an indispensible tool for coping with the ever-growing amounts of data which lawyers have to handle in running complex matters. Our lawyers are not engineers or data scientists. Good solid legal skills remain what we look for in our lawyers.”

But this does raise an interesting point about who the technology will impact most. While technology has always had the power to give a competitive edge, it does seem as though it favours the larger firms with more money to throw around than the smaller, family-run firms that may be at risk of falling behind the pack.

 

Those traditional businesses may also be wishing they were ahead of the curve at the next Deloitte prediction: the legal industry is moving away from the ‘classic’ law types and going for edgier, more modern personalities that want to shake things up.

 

The firms taking advantage of these ‘new’ personalities seem to want to move away from the traditional skillset and start outsourcing, developing their trajectory by finding a broader mix of skills and talents that may not have been affiliated with the sector much before.

 

These skillsets may be sourced from what is quickly becoming known as ‘gig economy’ – a concept where people can be employed on a short-term or freelance basis to provide their skills and expertise to a number of different companies (you can read what we had to say on this in Lawyer Monthly).

 

So where do we go from here?

It does seem as though the use of the term ‘in favour of automated technology’ is a loose one.

 

A number of sources including Patrick Allen – Hodge Jones & Allen senior partner – say that the technology is there to help workers, not steal their jobs: “These models will not replace [the employees’] experience and judgment, but will provide an additional aid to them in a world where it is no longer good enough to take a case on with a 50 per cent chance of success and where fees are restricted to a few hundred pounds.”

Lord Justice Briggs has reiterated this, claiming the sector should aim to “[harness] modern IT solutions where it can be best used and leaving lawyers to do what they do best – bespoke advice on the merits of a particular case and skilled advocacy services”.

 

Technology is disrupting every facet of our lives and there is no escaping its influence. But why should we even think about trying to? After all, if technology is able to streamline the way in which law firms operate, reduce costs and increase efficiencies and productivity, not to mention positively impact the bottom line of the organisation, where is the negative in that?

Evolution is good for business and while the skills we need to learn and the methods we may use to search and attract the right people for the right roles may change, there is no denying the fact that the next few decades should be very interesting indeed for the industry.