How I Learned To Embrace The Law Robot Revolution

Recently when thumbing through Facebook, I came across an ad for a coffee mug (clearly and efficiently targeted at me as a lawyer using my social data) with the phrase, “Don’t confuse your Google search with my law degree.” Very clever I thought as I clicked on it to find out how much it would cost to buy the mug and own that sense of quiet defiance in the face of technological change. Who of us has not had that experience with a client (or more likely, potential client) who quotes search results and is utterly convinced they know more than we do?

Robots won’t replace lawyers. It’s the narrative you hear from thought leaders on the future of law and lawyers. To quote two recent examples:

  • Technology doesn’t mean the end of lawyers by any means”; rather, “it will empower good lawyers to be even better.” – Aron Solomon from LegalX at MaRS
  • The view that automation, machine learning and artificial intelligence will displace legal professionals is a nonsense being peddled by ‘anxiety accelerators.’” – Peter Williams, Founder of Deloitte Digital

But, what if legal tech could not only output search results but could provide intelligent, well-founded advice and opinion? And, better yet, what if you could resolve conflicts online without stepping foot in court or the need for a lawyer?

Ten years ago, when thinking of legal innovation in the law, I divided what we do as lawyers into three categories: documents, advice and court advocacy.

Legal document generation was the first to fall. Even in 2006, LegalZoom had already captured significant market share from solo practitioners and small firm attorneys by handling estate planning, divorce, business formation and other bread and butter fare. The common wisdom was that ‘forms’ didn’t require much intellectual heavy lifting anyway and LegalZoom was doing lawyers a favor by handling this mundane work. Another well-circulated bromide was that LegalZoom’s documents were flawed and would only result in additional fees for lawyers to clean up the mess. Yet, online legal industry revenues have doubled from just under $2 billion in 2005 to almost $4.5 billion in 2015. Now, LegalZoom has been joined by Rocket Lawyer and dozens of other online legal service providers. Growth in the online legal services industry is anticipated to grow at an annualized rate of 7.3%.

I thought legal advice was a safe haven. But then came 2011 and Watson the “question answering machine” schooled Jeopardy contestants in the art of trivia knowledge. Ken Jennings, the best human Jeopardy contestant to date wrote “I, for one, welcome our new computer overlords” on his video screen. Now, Ross Intelligence (based on IBM’s Watson) has signed deals with Denton, the world’s largest law firm, Latham & Watkins, Baker Hostetler and others to perform legal research and synthesize answers – a routine function traditionally handled by junior lawyers. A chatbot created by nineteen year old Stanford freshman Joshua Browder has already successfully challenged 160,000 parking tickets, more than a lawyer could in a lifetime. And that’s just the beginning. Strong AI (artificial intelligence) will take this a quantum leap forward when machine intelligence meets then exceeds our own. AI experts agree this will happen by 2030.

I believed court advocacy would be the last stronghold. Certainly no robot could master the persuasion, empathy and force of will necessary to win a verdict. But, in the end, it wouldn’t have to. Sure, judge, lawyer and venue selection will be gamed using artificial intelligence and predictive analysis in a Moneyball fashion; they already have. But the real challenge to the court system lies in innovators changing the rules of the game by allowing individuals to opt out of the courts and resolve their disputes online. Modria is an online dispute resolution service built by the creators of the systems used by eBay and Paypal that process more than 60 million cases per year. At least one forward-thinking court in British Columbia, Canada has piloted its own online dispute resolution service.

Ethical rules and laws regulating the practice of law have always been there to protect the public, not to ensure lawyers’ monopoly. Lawyers have had the franchise because up until now they have been the only ones with the education and training to be able to provide legal services at an acceptable level of competency. That is no longer the case. Clients now have other more efficient and affordable alternatives. In the long run, access to justice (but not necessarily lawyers) wins. As non-lawyer solutions move up the food chain and take on more complex legal matters, lawyers will be forced to become hyper-specialized to remain relevant. Perhaps legal technology will not be the end of lawyers, but the number of lawyers needed in the future will be a mere fraction of what it is today.

The Kübler-Ross model postulates that they are five stages of emotions we experience on the death of loved one: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Richard Susskind maintains that lawyers have now reached a level of acceptance with respect to the rise of technology such that “senior lawyers are sagely proclaiming not simply that the time has come for the profession to modernize and transform itself but that they have been anticipating this for years.” I disagree. I believe denial is a very powerful human response to an existential stressor. The responses of most lawyers that I’ve personally witnessed range from denial to bargaining, as if it would be possible to lure the technological genie back in the bottle.

In the end, we have our humanity to offer. We can empathize with our clients and offer them support, guidance (more than answers) and peace of mind. There is a reason we are called attorneys and counselors at law. Old habits will also keep lawyers working as consumers still having a strong bias toward hiring a local lawyer. Consumers also still highly rely on the personal referral of a friend or family member to a qualified lawyer and will continue to do so. But habits change and within a generation these biases may disappear entirely.

After thinking it through, I decided not to buy the snarky coffee mug but to focus instead on launching my own law chatbot as soon as possible.

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