International Writing Competition 2018 overall runner-up article, for the category: The Future of Legal Practice.
The three wise men of the 21st century, Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates, and Elon Musk, warn against the potential dangers of developing Artificial Intelligence (AI), humanity’s voluntary step towards the Terminator scenario. Despite these prophecies, law firms are amongst the biggest players contributing to the discussion of AI. The commotion about the impact of AI on the legal industry is deafening, and it’s difficult for aspiring lawyers to make sense of the cacophony when anticipating their prospective careers. Reports seem to swing both ways, saying that 31,000 legal jobs have already been lost as a result of automation, but that 80,000 higher skilled jobs have also been created. That sounds (maybe) promising, but where does a junior lawyer fit into that equation? Articles reporting on the issue ask if lawyers will be replaced by machines industry-wide, but do little to comment meaningfully on the development of aspiring lawyers.
The short answer is that law students have nothing to worry about. A trainee at Herbert Smith Freehills explains that their firm uses document-automation AI that can prepare a first draft of standard contracts such as a Sale and Purchase Agreement by providing a list of clauses that he can select to include. Inputting the company name or registered number further allows the technology to extract information such as its directors and other filings. This saves him many hours of menial work, but the legal work at this stage is not done. He spends more time afterwards editing bespoke clauses to suit the contract to each client’s needs. By way of further examples, Slaughter and May partners with Luminance to review thousands of due diligence documents for mergers and acquisitions, and Pinsent Masons uses TermFrame, their inhouse AI tool, to assess client contract portfolios and create reports about potential Brexit and supply-chain risks. AI is used to sift through enormous volumes of documentation, able to identify search terms and specific clauses with impressive accuracy. But for the time being, that is its limitation – lawyers are still responsible for all legal work above the very lowest level.
There are a few widespread concerns that ought to be dispelled about the implications of AI.
Simon Rhodes, Director of Knowledge and Learning at Herbert Smith, says this is unlikely. While firms can help clients save money by using technological tools, they do not see AI only as a method of cost-cutting. Rather, firms see AI as an opportunity to focus their energy on solving complex problems, collaborating and building relationships with clients, and ultimately expanding their business – the more time they have, the more they can do. Law students should understand that the value of hiring and training lawyers is not in the menial work they provide, but the development of legal problem-solvers that partners can trust with their clients, and also the future of the firm. However, in light of using AI technology, law firms are now looking for different skills, focusing on adaptability, learning, and communication.
This rhetoric misses the crux of what makes a good lawyer. Although it will be helpful for aspiring lawyers to understand the technology, hence leveraging a STEM education, it can be an unrealistic and disheartening idea for later-stage students who are not inclined towards STEM or cannot afford to change course. The good news is that trainees are not expected to be directly involved in programming, and it is also not necessary to understand programming to make effective use of the technology. While STEM students are attractive to law firms, other students should not feel that they are disadvantaged because they don’t have a tech background. Students of all disciplines will add much-needed diversity of knowledge and sector expertise to law firms which increasingly observe a more intimate client-lawyer relationship across the board.
Lastly, the work of law firms will be reduced because of competitive law-tech companies that can provide the same services at a lower price.
This challenges the viability of a long and illustrious legal career which many students look forward to. But law-techs are niche and narrowly focused in their services. Clients may be attracted to the prospect of taking more control over their legal process, but that has already been the trend with the growth of impressive inhouse legal teams. While clients are empowered to deal with smaller issues, full-service firms remain best positioned to provide legal and commercial advice across multiple dimensions. However, students will benefit from understanding that law firms are considering more flexible business models and client relationships, for example focusing on value-added or performance-based profit-sharing instead of traditional billable hours.
The role of junior lawyers is arguably changing the most because AI takes on low-level legal work, yet law students have been left out of the loop in most AI-and-Law discussions. Rather than feeling anxious amidst all the commotion around the technology, aspiring lawyers should be excited about the prospect. Firms using AI means that junior lawyers will have more time to collaborate with clients and senior lawyers to solve bigger picture legal and commercial problems. Trainees will likely still be expected to go through the motions of grunt work a few limited times to learn about the process, but AI will accelerate budding legal careers by challenging trainees to take on more significant responsibilities and to hone their soft skills earlier on in their careers. Whether lawyers will ever be completely obsolete is another question for the far future. Lawyers confront complex personal and societal issues with political and social consequences. But most importantly, the business of lawyers is driven by understanding people, and in this respect, AI is limited. As the Terminator says to John in Judgment Day, “I know now why you cry, but it’s something I can never do.”
Patrick Alexander Hum is an LLM candidate at the London School of Economics, Ambassador for the Society for Computers and Law and Future trainee solicitor at Pinsent Masons. Alex also won best of category and overall runner-up in the Law and Technology International Writing Competition for his article on ‘The Future of Legal Practice’. Alex’s current research focuses on law, robotics, and artificial intelligence.