AI is affecting every industry, but what are the implications for the legal sector?

The year is 2025. Law firms have been forced to make 99% of staff redundant to welcome in the androids. Well-earned qualifications have been tossed aside in favour of cognitive computing and lawyers are quickly turning to YouTube to try and scrape some ad revenue from their weekly vlogs – but it isn’t enough. Forced to give up on everything they strived for, legal professionals are flocking to research labs in order to have AI chips inserted in their brains. “Ah well,” says one former partner of a magic circle firm, “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” 

Luckily for the legal profession, this vision of the future is highly unlikely to become a reality. However, as client demands evolve to mirror an increasingly on-demand society, artificial intelligence is slowly but surely redefining legal practices by simplifying processes and stripping back the need for support staff.

In five years’ time, we can expect the legal profession to be a world away from the traditional model we’ve known for so long. The question is, should lawyers be afraid?

In 2016, the Law Society undertook a survey within its own insights community, regarding technology and the legal profession.

The findings revealed nearly three quarters of respondents ‘strongly agreed’ that innovation is critical to exploit opportunities and differentiate their firm.

Yet, when it comes to artificial intelligence, there still remains a deep-rooted fear; a sci-fi fuelled concern that robots will ultimately rise up to replace (and eventually enslave) mankind.

It may seem far-fetched, but it’s not without good reason: in fact, a study by Deloitte recently indicated that technology was already leading to job losses in the UK legal sector, and some 114,000 jobs could be automated within 20 years. Following on from their technology-focused report, the Law Society issued a warning to smaller high street firms advising them to embrace new technologies to prevent being left behind. Their exact words? Firms “must do or die.”

From these snippets alone, you’d be forgiven for fearing the worst. However, legal professionals should rest assured that the days of android lawyers are far in the future, if at all. Some of them may have human names, but these digital assistants certainly aren’t sentient robots waiting to barge in and steal clients. Instead, AI software is proving beneficial in improving efficiencies for law firms brave enough to integrate it into their processes.

Professor Richard Susskind, technology consultant and author of ‘The Future of the Professions: How Technology Will Transform the Work of Human Experts’ predicts a monumental upheaval in the legal profession; one that doesn’t threaten the job security of legal experts but rather complements their work by taking care of the procedural tasks previously carried out by clerks and paralegals.

“One question lurking in all this is whether someone can come in and do to law what Amazon did to bookselling,” he says. “We won’t see anything as dramatic, but we will see incremental transformations in areas like the way documents are reviewed and the way legal risk is assessed.”

Rather than being in competition, most experts agree that the combination of artificial intelligence software and human experience has the potential to deliver a legal service that is fast, reliable and cost effective for clients. Examples of this collaboration between human and technology can already be seen in a number of industry-leading firms. As an early adopter of AI software, Clifford Chance harnessed the potential of a tool known as Kira Systems to assist with text analysis in contracts, giving clients an enhanced service through improved levels of speed, efficiency and quality.

“Law firms will need to look at their business model to overcome the hurdle of investing in AI,” says Bas Boris Visser, Global Head of Innovation at Clifford Chance. “If using AI means that we can deliver better value to the client then we have to be able to come up with a model that results in a win-win situation.”

Truthfully, the impact that AI has and will further have on the legal sector is undeniable. Are we likely to see job losses? Unfortunately, yes: however, instead of forcing people out of the profession, the integration of new technology should inspire them to gain the irreplaceable skills that will inevitably future-proof their careers and the industry as a whole.