The robots are taking over, and the legal profession is not immune

21 August 2017 by

Richard Susskind, IT adviser to the Lord Chief Justice, has spent many years looking into the future of the law. In a fascinating podcast paving the way for his new book The Future of the Professions and the updated Tomorrow’s Lawyers, he discusses with OUP’s George Miller the new world of technological advancements in the day to day management of dispute resolution. We have taken the liberty of summarising the podcast here and posting a link to the interview at the end of this post. 

Susskind finds, in comparison with the rest of the English speaking world, that the legal institutions of the UK are in some sort of denial about the march of AI. He maintains that the legal world will change more in twenty years than it has in the past two centuries. If we want to improve access to justice in our society, the answer is in technology. But the law schools have not caught up with this idea.

How do we work out what to do in the face of irreversible and inevitable change in the law? Susskind acknowledges that most people want to pay less for legal services, for something that is less complicated, less combative. It’s not that there’s less legal work to do, there’s more legal work to do, but it’s under cost pressure.

The twenties will be the big decade of change. The age of denial ended in 2016; leaders in law are no longer saying the legal world is going to go back to what it was in 2004-6. But the period from 2016 – 2020 is the area of resourcing, put bluntly, finding cheaper people to do the work by outsourcing, as manufacturing did years ago. Once we’re into the twenties, we’ve arrived in an area Susskind calls the decade of disruption. The challenge to lawyers will be to provide not only one to one services in the traditional way, but to work on systems that one day will replace us. The trusted advisor concept is not fundamental to the legal service. That was limited to the print world. The future of the professions is to imagine other ways in which these problems must be sorted out. When a client has a problem, and they say they want a trusted advisor, what they really want  is access to reliable expertise, and this is being worked on in the field of AI. Our technology is becoming more and more capable. Future clients will happily go for that even if they lose the surrounding aura or trappings of a traditional legal advisor.

So, what does this mean in practical terms,? The machines are not going to simply replicate human advice. Online dispute resolution is carried out very differently. An example Susskind often raises is the Black and Decker model. The leading manufacturer of power tools tell their new executives not to spread the message about the B & D power tool itself, but to image new routes to a hole neatly drilled. That is what the customer wants, not an over-engineered model of an existing B & D drill. Equally, in the law, our vision should not be looking for a turbo-charged version of the way we dealt with legal problems in the past. For example on eBay 60 million disputes are sorted out not by courts or lawyers but an online legal mechanism. As Susskind says we need to think about

Putting a fence at the top of the cliff rather than an ambulance at the bottom.

Law firms need to take the new accounting  and law technology firms very seriously; they are not hamstrung by the old ways. Software that can enable lawyers to undertake due diligence exercises really do all what junior lawyers have been employed to do in the past. That model is no longer tenable, because much cheaper pieces of software are out there. More has to be done for less; costs have to be cut, margins are tighter.

Lawyers have to get their heads around the fact that they must innovate and invent if they want to be market leaders. Being great people delivering a great service via a fine brand is no longer enough; the whole thing is breaking down where these services are being delivered by different entities, and some of those entities are algorithms or software packages.

Susskind points to the changes that have rolled in via another venerable profession, nursing.  In the eighties nursing was largely about bedpans and bedside manner; now nurses are prescribing drugs and carrying out minor operations. Similarly the sort of tasks that kept junior lawyers busy, reviewing documents etc, will be replaced by systems. So what will their tasks be? As a lawyer you can either, Canute like (not Susskind’s words) “compete with machines (empathy, tuition, judgment); or you can build them.”

But as Susskind acknowledges AI will simply have those superior human features built in. So who will be tasked with building the new systems? Most major organisations like the big four accountancy firms don’t want people hand crafting with ledgers their big corporate tax compliance work. They want a fifth of their tax specialists to be technologists. Tax solutions will be technology based, systems based.

So how should lawyers respond?

Increasingly your clients will expect your solutions to be technology or systems based.

So if you want to change the world for the better, as a lawyer starting out, you’d be better qualified as a knowledge engineer or a process analyst or systems designer who can help clients to develop a document assembly system, or a diagnostic system or get involved in process analysis.

I often ponder that lawyers are quite conservative … but we will be wanting to attract new kinds of people, people who are more entrepreneurial, who are perhaps better risk takers, people who are more exposed to more technology and to change.

But that, Susskind acknowledges, won’t happen overnight.

Richard Susskind, OBE is an author, speaker, and independent adviser to international professional firms and national governments. He is President of the Society for Computers and Strategy and Technology Adviser to the Lord Chief Justice. He is the author of Tomorrow’s Lawyers: An Introduction to Your Future (OUP, 2017) and co-author with Daniel Susskind of The Future of the Professions: How Technology Will Transform the Work of Human Experts (OUP, 2017).

5 comments


  1. aliceroder says:

    Inspired by Richard Susskind’s projections of the role technology will come to play in the UK justice system, the PSU will be holding a panel debate in partnership with the Young Legal Aid Lawyers on the 28th of September.

    A panel of lawyers, technologists, and access to justice experts will be hosted by Sir Rupert Jackson to discuss what legal technology and online dispute resolution means for Access to Justice in the Queens Conference Room, Royal Courts of Justice.

    Tickets for the event are just £10 including a complimentary drinks reception, and 1 CPD point has been accredited to this talk, curtesy of BPP University. All proceeds go to a fantastic charity helping people who would otherwise be going to court alone and vulnerable.

    We invite you to find out more at https://www.thepsu.org/events/lectures-and-webinars/access-to-justice-under-technological-reform/ or get in touch with me: alice.roder@thepsu.org.uk to have a chat about it.

  2. Reblogged this on Musings of a Penpusher and commented:
    Room for thought here.

  3. George Burns says:

    Essentially, the whole system needs overhauling and streamlining. Judges need to be more abundant, diverse and business like and the law needs to be less formal and more certain in terms of outcomes. Time limits coupled with penalities should steer litigation through a more simplistic and logical path from initial claim to judgement with the ADR as a parallel path.
    Above all, people want to have their grievances addressed by a superior entity along the lines of current perceptions of justice. In short, for many, they need their day in court and it is invariably the prohibitive costs factor risk that is the catalyst to settle early.
    AI can greatly assist in making the system simpler, faster and more accessible to practitioner, personal litigants and others who may wish to engage with the system on another’s behalf.
    Medical reports should be acquired post judgement if necessary as these can slow down the pace of case immensely and be costly for litigants on low wages.
    Restrictions on appeals and the complete removal of all but the most essential interlocutory applications should be seriously considered.
    Electronic communication with the court should be second nature with court bundles reduced to pen drives and perhaps the judge deciding if a hearing is necessary at all having read a case summary.
    I very much doubt if any programme can be written to satisfy the litigants perception of justice without a Kafkaesque outcome!

  4. Anne Palmer says:

    WHAT IS TO BE?

    The tale I tell you on this day
    T’is truth of what will come to be,
    Our soldiers of ‘today’ will go,
    Replaced by robots, you hear from me.
    To slim down our manned forces,
    Remember you heard it first from me,
    The factories busy making eight foot robots
    For that in future —-is to be.

    Some “Terminator-Type” robotic killers
    Replacing our troops will come to be,
    Transporters replaced by robotic vehicles
    You heard it first from me!
    Autonomous robots with power to make decisions,
    To kill and maim is what will come to be,
    Think this could never happen?
    You read it here from me.

    Unaccountable robotic killing machines
    Rise from new technologies unknown to me
    Human Rights Watch could not prevent
    What will indeed come to be.
    Lethal armed robots that can target and kill,
    You read it here what will indeed come to be,
    Though “humans” watch and often wonder,
    No rejection-though repugnant- you heard from me

    Already “Drones” hover in the sky above,
    This truth known, yet not from me,
    Targeting areas planned out by others,
    Yet I prayed it would never come to be.
    I knew no “bows and arrows” of yester-year,
    Though bombs were very well known to me,
    To un-accounted robotic killing machines,
    I pray and pray will never come to be.

    Battlefield killer Robots almost a reality,
    Human Rights ended, though once known to me,
    The worry about ‘mortality’ and accountability
    Yet, will it all indeed ever come to be?
    The Campaigns to stop Killer robots
    From fields afar, yet sadly not from me,
    An International Treaty sought to ban
    On closéd ears, sadly it may well yet come to be.

  5. Computers, robots, technology is unable to think for itself.It is only as good as the programmer.All information is black or white. If the battery is down or there is power failure it cannot operate. Defense humanoids are rather dangerous. Finger imprints or retina recognition etc can all be ‘fooled’. RFID chips intended also to control ones medical in take track you or bug your dwelling when you are away.It would be unacceptable and dictatorial force whosoever tries to enforce such technologies on Human Beings who are superior Beings.

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