What if computers practiced law? Will we even need lawyers anymore?

Well, watch out, freshers, computers are sitting in your chair and they’ve taken the corner office. A group of students at the University of Toronto have developed a new IBM Watson-built system called ROSS, dubbed “The Super Intelligent Attorney.” ROSS is a digital legal expert that absorbs natural-language legal questions, performs legal research on the issues within each question and attempts to answer the questions with confidence levels. Sound a bit crazy and new age? It’s definitely a huge development but it’s a sign of things to come.

And at the same time that computers are muscling in on the profession, hoardes of eager lawyers are graduating from law school in a saturated, competitive market. According to a 2014 article in the Australian Financial Review, two-thirds of Australian law students who intend to work as legal practitioners will be vying for rare grad positions, as firms pick and choose from a huge oversupply of candidates of unprecedented quality. In the US, Chief Justice Warren Burger predicted 35 years ago that America was turning into “a society overrun by hordes of lawyers, hungry as locusts” and it seems his predictions have come true.

So where does that leave our young graduates and lawyers with stars in their eyes, imagining themselves as Harvey Specter only to found ROSS sitting in their open plan cubicle and outsourced or virtual paralegals doing their job?

Too Many Knights, Not Enough Seats at the Round Table

According to a survey conducted by Survive Law, the extent of competition for graduate positions will mean that more than 50 per cent of graduates will be feeling stressed most or all of the time about finding job in the legal field after they graduate. So how do we combat this new tech competitor, the ultimate law graduate without calling in Detective Spooner? Are we going to see Sonny from IRobot graduate from law school in 2035?

Too many law grads, not enough jobs.

Too many law grads, not enough jobs.

Computers Stole My Job

At a recent law summit which, ironically, precluded students from attending due the prohibitive nature of the ticket price, Professor Susskind took the trouble to summarise the gist of his lecture by saying:

“The future of law is not Grisham, Rumpole, or Suits. It is technology, new ways of sourcing work, new competitors, diversification (eg. law firms offering consulting), online dispute resolution, Big Data, AI. Our law schools need to take the future seriously. We need them to produce 21st and not 20th century lawyers.”

So knowing your ‘mens rea’ from your ‘res judicata’ isn’t enough anymore. Many of the routine tasks assigned to graduate lawyers can now be achieved through the use of automated programs and technology tools. Paralegals are not immune either. In its Business of Law blog, publisher identified nine trends that are currently impacting paralegals, one of which was technology and software (automation, outsourcing, virtualisation of tasks) taking over their roles.

In his recent book, Tomorrow’s Lawyers, Professor Susskind recommends that young aspiring lawyers immerse themselves in the tools and techniques that the legal practices of tomorrow will require.

“It seems to me that if you look at a number of emerging and enabling technologies whether it will be the kind of systems used by IBM and their Watson system, or whether it will be the use of big data, or ever more intelligent search, we are certainly developing more generally beyond the law extremely powerful systems that can perform tasks that we thought require human intelligence …… It will be important in law as elsewhere for young aspiring professionals to be entirely familiar with the potential and the limitations of online service in their areas”, says Susskind.

Become schooled in law and technology, learning e-discovery and updating your tech skills can keep young lawyers and paralegals on top of their game and employable in a tough, changing market. New roles will become available such as legal project engineer and legal process analyst, and the more you stay in tune with tech developments, the more likely you’ll find your place in the profession.

Accessible, Affordable Law

In the UK, it has been reported that more people are qualifying in the profession whilst legal aid fees contract, crime falls and competition pressures from deregulation lead to amalgamations.

In this environment, however, as reported in the Guardian, there is also an unmet domestic need for lawyers to advise clients on issues such as housing, debt and benefit claims that are no longer supported by legal aid. The sum of it: advice on the law is sorely needed, but no longer highly subsidised or affordable.

This also seems to be the case globally. So, in my view, graduates and young lawyers should be looking for ways to give advice to those people who can’t afford lawyers traditionally but cannot qualify for government aid (referred to in my last blog as the ‘lean middle’). The arguments for an online marketplace have never made more sense when you think about the need for young lawyers to play a part in the legal industry. There’s only one catch – who trains our young lawyers if they can’t get a job in the first place and can’t afford to go out on their own straight out of law school?

Where’s My Mentor?

Whilst it may be possible for young lawyers to become entrepreneurs and navigate their own path, there is only one obvious prohibitor – training and mentoring. As dispersed, ‘NewLaw’ and virtual law firms seek experienced practitioners with 8 to 10 years of specialist experience to join their ranks and round out their flexible business model, graduates are left in the recruitment void with no one to look over their shoulder and guide them along the yellow brick road. There’s a golden opportunity to train these lawyers in legal and tech skills and I am certain someone is going to jump on it soon – if not, I will!

Mentoring: the key to the future.

Mentoring: the key to the future.

Essential Legal Skills in the NewLaw Era

Law students and new attorneys, as rapid as the tech changes are, it’s not all doom and gloom. It’s really a matter of clever upskilling. According to the NSW College of Law, the lawyers of the future will need skills such as:

  •      Finance
  •      Project Management
  •      Legal process analysis, and
  •      Negotiation.

And as long as new industry entrants learn to be commercially astute, adaptable to change, and are eager to learn new technology skills, they’ll be ready to launch into the profession with a fresh perspective and might just take a seat next to ROSS at the table.

Because you know what? There’s one thing that ROSS doesn’t have – empathy. And in my humble opinion? It’s one of the most important skills a lawyer can have. Empathy, compassion, understanding. Law doesn’t exist in a moral vacuum and we still need human lawyers to help humans with their human problems. Computers just aren’t there yet, I’m afraid.

Law grads out there, what do you think?

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