UK Human Rights Blog

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

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).