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I, For One, Welcome Our New Robot Overlords

Nicole BlackWho knew robots and lawyers went hand in hand? I had no idea until the two terms recently began repeatedly showing up in my RSS feed in headline after headline. Most articles seem to posit that robots will one day—in the not so distant future—replace lawyers. In other words, lawyers are doomed. Doomed I say!

Now the death of lawyers—that’s nothing new. It’s a theme I’ve grown used to. In fact, I’ve even been know to throw the words “dinosaur” and “extinct” into a sentence that contains the word “lawyers.” After all, a little hyperbole can sometimes go a long way.

But robots replacing lawyers in the near future? Now that’s a bit farfetched, even for me. For starters, if you replaced the word “lawyers” with “robots” in any lawyer joke, the whole thing would fall flat. It would be a travesty!

John Markoff—someone who is obviously a great all around guy—agrees with me. In a recent New York Times Bits blog post about the future of the legal profession, he addressed the claim that robots will replace lawyers and explained why this is unlikely to happen anytime soon:

“As it turns out, being a lawyer involves performing a range of tasks, from reading and analyzing documents, to counseling, appearing in court and persuading juries. Indeed, reading documents accounts for a relatively modest portion of a lawyer’s activities.

The researchers noted that many of the tasks that lawyers perform fall well within what Polanyi defined as human behavior that cannot be easily codified…

In an analysis of actual legal work practices from billing invoice data, the researchers estimated that about 13 percent of all legal work might ultimately fall prey to automation. If that amount of work disappeared in a single year, it would be devastating, of course. But implemented over many years, this amount of technological change would be less noticeable, they said.”

This makes a lot of sense to me. Much of my experience as an attorney has been in litigation, and I have a very hard time envisioning the automation of much of what litigators do. That’s why the conclusion reached in another New York Times Bits blog post about the automation of work also resonated with me. In this post, Steve Lohr suggested that automation via robots will change the nature of many jobs, but certainly won’t eradicate most of them:

“Smart software and robots are not poised to wipe out large numbers of American jobs, but technology-driven automation will affect most every occupation and can change work, according to new research from McKinsey.”

And, of course lawyers are not immune from this trend. The practice of law will undoubtedly change in the coming years; in fact it already has. But, in most cases, automation software will simply alter and streamline lawyers’ work, rather than replace it. 

That being said, I readily acknowledge that my perception of the effect of automation on the practice of law may very well be colored by the fact that I am an attorney.  At least, that’s the case according to Richard and Daniel Susskind. 

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In their recently published book, The Future of Professions, they suggest that most professionals take a perfectly reasonable stance when it comes to discussing the inevitable effects of technology on other professions, but when it comes to their own, they staunchly refuse to admit that technology will render change:

“(‘Status quo bias’) manifests itself in various ways. One is the special pleading in which many professionals engage. They accept that professionals in general are in need of change, but they maintain that their own particular fields are immune…A professional will claim that a new system or method cannot solve x or y, where X or y are the most difficult of problems in their fields.  Rather than conceding that many everyday challenges can indeed be met in many new ways, the argument concentrated on the atypical. It disconcerts by focusing on extreme examples rather than everyday challenges.”

In other words, there’s a good chance I’m one of those stubborn professionals. After all, I can readily envision how technology will replace the functions of some physicians—or at the very least, reduce the number of physicians required to accomplish certain tasks. Similarly, the effects of technology on journalism and the ways in which the Internet has leveled the publishing playing field are likewise readily apparent to me. 

But the idea of technology replacing the vast majority of lawyers’ functions or otherwise reducing the numbers of lawyers by a substantial number seems improbable to me. While litigators are not the majority of the profession, they represent a good portion of attorneys. And those who are not litigators nevertheless often provide very specialized services that require analytical and creative thought processes that simply cannot be replaced by computers. Sure software can streamline many aspects of practicing law and increase efficiencies, but at the end of the day, computers cannot practice law.

But perhaps the lawyer in me doth protest too much. Who knows? Maybe the robots will prevail. In which case, I don’t know about you, but I’ll be the first in line to welcome our new robot lawyer overlords. And then, I’ll tell them the joke about a robot and a shark. I’m sure it’ll bring down the house.

Nicole Black is the Legal technology Evangelist at MyCase, a cloud-based law practice management platform. She is an attorney in Rochester, New York, and is a GigaOM Pro analyst. She is the author of the ABA book Cloud Computing for Lawyers, co-authors the ABA book Social Media for Lawyers: the Next Frontier, and co-authors Criminal Law in New York, a West-Thomson treatise. She speaks regularly at conferences regarding the intersection of law and technology and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .
 

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