SBT responds to some outlandish claims about the future of the legal profession, stating that by 2020 90% of lawyers will be obsolete. We take a look at whether AI really has the capacity to take over the legal sector, gathering opinions from professionals themselves and questioning the future of business as a whole

The future is something we’re all obsessed with, each in our own way. We may be preoccupied with our own futures – where we’re going, what we’re doing, our career path, our relationships – but we’re also intrigued to say the least with the future of society as a whole, in particular when it comes to technology. This may conjure up images of flying cars, time travel, hover boards or migration to another planet entirely, but there are things that are far more real happening that are just as impressive, and in some cases rather terrifying.

The SBT team caught wind of an article that was floating about the internet, written by Robert M. Goldman (MD, PhD, DO, FAASP). All those letters of course instil a confidence akin to wearing a lab coat in a social experiment, but other more cynical minds look more sceptically at lab coats and letters at the end of names. It had some good points, of course; business is changing and society as we know it will have shifted dramatically over to a more science-fiction-esque dynamic. We can see this from past developments. For instance, in 1998, Kodak had 170,000 employees and sold 85% of all photo paper worldwide. Within just a few years, their business model disappeared and they went bankrupt. This article made the point that what happened to Kodak will happen in a lot of industries in the next 10 years due to a shift in technology and job roles. With all or most new technologies, they suffer disappointment and glitches for a long time, before they become superior and mainstream, often so gradually that we don’t even notice. Now, some – including Dr Goldman – say we are heading into the 4th Industrial Revolution, the Exponential Age, where Artificial Intelligence rules over us all, health will no longer be an issue, we will no longer have to drive ourselves around, education will be available for all, we will be able to 3D print all our belongings, and jobs as we know them will be halved. Nobody can argue that these things aren’t possible, but achieving all this by 2020 seems far-fetched. Or maybe that’s just me.

Artificial Intelligence was a big topic within Goldman’s article, and this is a topic not only on speculative lips, but it’s in the minds of government officials, including the Prime Minister, Theresa May. On 22nd January, she announced the government’s modern Industrial Strategy, fit for Global Britain. This included 10 strategic pillars, which were: investing in science, research and innovation; developing skills; upgrading infrastructure; supporting businesses to start and grow; improving procurement; encouraging trade and inward investment policy; delivering affordable energy; cultivating world-leading sectors; driving growth across the whole country; and creating the right institutions to bring together sectors. The strategy’s focus within the innovation and research pillar was robotics and artificial intelligence, with the £4.7 billion increase in R&D funding announced in last year’s Autumn Statement central to successful outcomes in this area.

The way that UK business is developing inevitably must be in line with the rest of the world, in order for us to compete and in order for us to thrive. Goldman states that computers will become exponentially better in understanding the world. This, even without this R&D investment, is a given. Just this year, a computer beat the best Go player in the world, 10 years earlier than expected, and software is allowing us to do things we never imagined even 5 years ago, let alone 10. When it comes to jobs, many have previously suggested that we are all in danger of losing them; in danger of AI taking over, with no need for human roles. Again, most realise that the working world will change, and that computers often do a better job than we do – in some things. But, a large number of people would challenge the notion that jobs would be halved and that things like customer service, or even jobs in law will be wholly replaced with AI: “There will be 90% fewer lawyers in the future, only specialists will remain,” says Goldman. He explains: “Because of IBM Watson, you can get legal advice (so far for more or less basic stuff) within seconds, with 90% accuracy compared with 70% accuracy when done by humans. So if you study law, stop immediately.”

SBT’s recent roundtable events, in association with NatWest, have given a balanced view on these kinds of topics time and time again, but the majority voice undeniably holds that human customer service will never be completely eliminated. We asked Garth Watson, ex practising lawyer and co-founder of Libryo, a LegalTech SaaS platform commented on Goldman’s statement: “The problem with this statement is that it is too broad. There are many types of lawyers. Litigators, transactional lawyers, those who work on the development of the law. It is probably safe to say that routine transactional law will be affected the most (things like “business as usual” contracting and property transfers) while litigators, which at times is more theatrical, than signing a non-disclosure agreement (for example) will not be too badly affected. The bar is already being very positively affected by legaltech and great efficiency is being brought to bear by tech like e-discovery.”

Goldman’s suggestion is that IBM Watson, a cognitive computing system is already in the process of becoming more efficient than humans, stating that the software already diagnoses patients 4 times more accurately than nurses. Thankfully he doesn’t quite go as far to say ‘stop studying to be a nurse immediately’.

Even if this is the case though, the ‘human factor’ is something that cannot be replicated by AI, no matter how advanced it gets. Professor Martin Upchurch, Professor of International Employment Relations at Middlesex University wrote an extremely interesting blog called ‘Is a robot after your job?’ in January, which explained the realism of AI within the future workforce. In this, he states: “While algorithms might replicate past human behaviour in robotic form they are a long way off from ‘consciousness’ and the ability to ‘think’ at the level of a human. Returning to the ‘Turing Test’ the ability of robots to ‘think’ as humans do is only a remote possibility. Turing also identified a ‘halting problem’ whereby a computer using AI may never ‘know’ when it is ‘right’, and so will continue to compute.”

He adds: “We should not get carried away with the rise of the robots, while their numbers may well rise to over 2 million, this compares with a worldwide workforce of 3 billion. In the country with the highest density of robots (South Korea) there are still less than 500 for every 10,000 workers.”

When asked if the legal sector would ever become completely AI run, Garth responses with a solid ‘No’: “Because of the ‘human factor’. When practising law I realised that often clients consulted with us because they enjoyed it. Often clients would take a call in a consultation and say, “sorry I can’t take your call, I’m with my lawyer” – it was kind of a prestige thing. Other times, certain clients just wanted to chat. Even though the clock was running, they just wanted someone to listen. Going to a psychologist has a certain stigma to it. But if you can go to your lawyer and get the human connection you are after then that is a good deal.

“These may be fringe issues, that don’t apply to every client, or every lawyer, but they do highlight an important thing. People entrust their affairs, their life’s work, their legacy, their businesses etc etc to lawyers. There is a big trust component in there. And I’d say that trusting a human is part of it. People will learn to trust the machine, but certainly in the near future, the human component of the offering of legal services will win out on these big issues. These are private client work examples, but when it comes to corporate law the factors are still the same. Business is done on the basis of trust and respect with people and professionals that one has built sold relationships. This will not go away.”

Others disagree with this view, of course including Goldman, stating that AI can in fact replicate and replace humans. Matty Mariansky, Co-founder of Meekan by Doodle suggests that within the next year, branded bots will be able to implement personality and even humour to customer interactions: “In the next year, I predict we will see a business appoint the world’s first ‘Head of Humanity’ – tasked with creating personalities for the growing numbers of customer facing business bots, ensuring they seem as person-like as possible.”

Equally on the impact of AI on jobs as a whole, Gary Peters of agrees with the 5 year view: “Many of today’s jobs are likely not to exist in 20 years although my understanding is that it is in the region of 40-50% (although there is no real science to come to this figure). Technology is evolving so fast and the world is definitely changing, it is a worrying time as nobody is really clear where we will be in 20-30 years. Who could have predicted the advances in technology over the last 20 years, not many!

Of course, it is true that technology is evolving fast. But we’re not talking about just mere technology, we are talking about an AI revolution, and arguably this will affect each sector very differently. We can see that the majority opinion is that the legal sector will not be one of the professions dramatically changed due to the need for a human presence – instilling trust, providing the means for disclosure and being empathic. These are all things that are beyond AI. Even more basic technological changes have a long way to go within law. Garth explains: “If one looks at the trajectory of a successful startup you are looking at least 5 years before the startup achieves a billion dollar valuation. Currently the global legal market is in the ballpark of around 700 billion dollars. That means 700 odd legaltech startups need to succeed in becoming unicorns, which means that there need to be a whole lot more out there today. There aren’t. Certainly not the kind that are focusing on doing the work of lawyers.”

He added: “At the moment lawyers are the guardians of the law. I have blogged that in the future for certain areas of law, namely law that is clear, but obscure, legaltech, not lawyers will be the guardians. Where law is more bespoke and agreements negotiated and then drafted in collaboration with company representatives and “top of their game” private equity lawyers for example – legaltech has a long way to go. I don’t think that kind of legal practice will be touched at all by legaltech in the next 5 years.”

IBM Watson posits that cognitive computing would be particularly useful in the finance industry, within stock markets, which seems a very likely development before 2020. Stock markets are nowhere near as specialist as the service lawyers provide, whether that be commercial or personal. Nobody is arguing that this isn’t a possibility across many areas of business, but not only is it more likely to be further off than 2020, with cognitive systems absorbing human learning to support human processes, a more realistic view seems to be that this human factor will be supported by ‘cobots’ rather than an overhaul of AI. Professor Upchurch gave the example of Mercedes-Benz, who in developing its autonomous cars, have had to begin replacing robots with humans in its factories, due to the lack of flexibility of the robots: Moves are now afoot to develop ‘cobots’ which operate side-by-side with humans to enable flexibility and creativity to flourish.”

Dana Denis-Smith, founder and CEO of Obelisk Support, a legal business that provides highly-skilled lawyers on a flexible basis to FTSE companies, agrees with Garth’s views, highlighting how the ‘human factor’ is simply far too important in law to be overridden by AI, but that support is plausible: “Technology will always be an enabler of people but will never take over completely. Smart business will deploy technology to make the most of humans.”

She added: “We’re deeply committed to human intelligence over artificial intelligence, our ‘humans first’ approach will also look at how technology can be utilised to make the most of an individuals’ core skills. Technology is there to make individuals’ lives easier, not eradicate their roles.”

We also spoke to Coffin Mew about this call for law students to stop studying immediately. Amanda Brockwell, Partner at Coffin Mew explained that the tasks that AI would encompass would de-value the learning experience that is currently essential for practicing lawyers: “Lawyers – or lawyers’ time – is expensive, so automation of processing has long been a part of the legal workplace. Artificial intelligence moves this on a step and arguably moves in on the preserve of professionals to make qualitative decisions based on information put in front of them.

“A lot of that experience comes as a result of trawling through due diligence and picking things up. If this is replaced by automation, how are the next generation of lawyers going to get that experience and instinct? How can they offer the genuine professional consultancy type project management, which is what valuable lawyers really bring to the party when it comes to getting a deal done?”

Not only would lawyers not learn the instinctive and high level knowledge they need to in order to practice in their specialty, others would suggest that the inevitably huge worker resistance to a change to AI would ensure that, if it does happen, it would be a very rocky road to walk down. Even too rocky. We can see from history that changes like this, meaning people lose their jobs, are not taken lightly. Garth gave his opinion: “Given the issues relating to senior partners being successful with practising law without AI and probably being reluctant to change the status quo, the answer to the uptake may not be that radical. Unless of course there are firms that start to outcompete other law firms because of there use of legal tech. This will probably be the main driver, which in turn will be fuelled by clients trusting and benefitting from AI enabled law firms such that they start giving them more of their business. That takes us back to the issue of trust and the human factor. Perhaps specialists of the future will be specialist at being humans!”