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Is There Hope for Human Lawyers, or Will Robot Lawyers Rule the World?

Nicole BlackIn 2014, CNN ruffled quite a few feathers by publishing an article, which effectively launched what I like to call the “Robot Lawyer Revolution.” This idea - that many tasks performed by lawyers were rote and could be more cost-effectively handled by AI technology - began to steadily gain momentum. 

Not surprisingly, legal technology cheerleaders enthusiastically embraced the concept, positing that lawyers were doomed. And of course naysayers proclaimed that lawyers were essentially shielded from being replaced by technology due to the high levels of analytical thought involved in their day-to-day activities.

The latter’s viewpoint was encapsulated in this  New York Times Op-Ed piece from January 2016, “The End Of Lawyers? Not So Fast.” In it, the author suggested that if many of the tasks performed by lawyers could, in fact, be replaced by “robots,” it would take years for this to occur. He based his conclusion on the results of a study, “Can Robots Be Lawyers?”, and summarized the findings of the study as follows:

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.

And then, just 4 days after the Op-Ed was published, a UK teen made headlines for developing an app designed to help people fight parking tickets. It was reported that the app had assisted its users in successfully appealing over $3 million in parking tickets.

Fast forward a few months to May 2016, where it was widely reported that one of the largest U.S.-based law firms, BakerHostetler, had announced that it planned to employ a “robot lawyer,” (ROSS) to assist with bankruptcy cases. As explained in this Washington Post article:

The AI machine, powered by IBM’s Watson technology, will serve as a legal researcher for the firm. It will be responsible for sifting through thousands of legal documents to bolster the firm’s cases. These legal researcher jobs are typically filled by fresh-out-of-school lawyers early on in their careers.

It would seem then that “robot lawyers” may be taking over more quickly then some might have hoped, especially when it comes to entry-level jobs involving more rote, data-driven work. This is bad news for recent law school graduates - especially given the most recently available job data for recent graduates, as discussed at the Tax Prof Blog:

Legal

The ABA has just released employment statistics for the Class of 2015. As Jerry Organ speculated over the weekend, the report is decidedly mixed. The percentage of graduates holding full-time, long-term jobs requiring bar passage edged up slightly, from 59.9% in 2014 to 60.3% in 2015.

This small increase, however, resulted from the drop in the number of graduates–rather than from any increase in available jobs. Graduates fell 9.2% between the two years, from 43,832 in 2014 to 39,817 in 2015. The actual number of FTLT bar-required jobs also fell, from 26,248 in 2014 to 23,993 in 2015. That’s a hefty decline of 2,255 jobs or 8.6%.

Pertinently, 59.9 percent of graduates held full-time jobs requiring bar passage, up only slightly from 58.7 percent for the class of 2014 and 55.9 percent for the class of 2013. (None of these figures include school-funded jobs.) The actual number of such jobs fell again to 23,600 from 25,344 last year. That’s a 6.9 percent decline. It’s troubling that demand for new full-time lawyers is falling with graduates. The phenomenon suggests that many graduates in past years were finding less stable work than the full-time/long-term category implies. Instead, fewer graduates aren’t translating to higher employment rates. I expected things to look better this year.

In other words, the future looks bleak for recent law school graduates. 

Of course, the question still remains:, will AI programs, aka “robots,” replace lawyers? The answer is, of course not. At least not all lawyers. But some lawyers, especially recent graduates, will undoubtedly be hard hit by the looming robot lawyer revolution. How this will play out on a grand scale remains to be seen. But rest assured, change is upon us. And it’s happening more quickly than you might think.

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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