Rage Against the Machines: Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Legal Practice

Heel-dragging frustration at impending changes in the legal industry is misguided. There will likely always be jobs for creative and gregarious lawyers. It’s the repetitive tasks at the junior end of the legal industry that will change the most, and the soonest.

Artificial lawyers

Two recent stories shine a spotlight on the digital future of legal practice. An Australian practitioner designed and launched a law firm staffed solely by an artificial intelligence (AI) providing tax and estates law services. In the race to market AI legal services, the Artificially Intelligent Legal Information Research Assistant (Ailira) deservedly won headlines and, potentially, mindshare.

Similarly, a competition in the United Kingdom pitted a legal AI against 100 experienced commercial lawyers. The lawyers and AI were given the factual scenarios of hundreds of cases and asked to predict the success of the claim. Achieving 86 per cent accuracy, the Case Cruncher Alpha (Case Cruncher) beat its human counterparts by over 20 per cent.

AI, like Ailira, breaks down the cost barriers to accessing legal services and brings power back to those who need it most. Competition in legal AI will be fierce over the next few years. Traditional law firms will compete with startups, non-traditional legal service providers like Thomson Reuters, and legal outsiders such as Bloomberg and PwC, for tech and law qualified staff and market share.

Same industry, different jobs

The bread-and-butter work of discovery, due diligence, drafting and precedent management is already moving onto software platforms and away from paralegals and graduates. Regardless of whether this a good thing for junior legal staff, clients demand it. Software, for better or worse, is cheaper and faster.

The pinch of AI and tech will be felt first at the entry levels of highly leveraged traditional law firms. Piling in behind private practice will be government and then community legal centres, who don’t necessarily have the capital to expend on untested technologies, but will adopt and adapt tested tech in pursuit of their bottom lines and better services.

In this space, flexible startups are ahead of everyone else and can often be found at the forefront of development. As growth in the traditional legal industry lags, tech-law jobs will expand drastically. Inspiration for this position can be seen in the expansion of techno-legals in Australian firms – a trend arguably pioneered by Gilbert + Tobin. Tech and law qualified graduates are suddenly in massive demand in an otherwise stale clerkship and graduate jobs market.

Machine learning

This trend has not escaped the eagle eyes of the university sector. In the 2017 Australia: State of the Legal Market report, Melbourne Law School and Thomson Reuters Peer Monitor write that “[m]any Australian law schools are adding legal technology and legal app development to their curricula”. In a market flooded with law graduates, savvy universities are training their students with an eye to future employability. Those that aren’t are behind the curve.

While Case Cruncher and Ailira provide a glimpse into the distinctly digital future of legal practice, AI and legal tech cannot yet replicate the experience and creativity of a battle-hardened legal practitioner. Legal jobs that require a large degree of creativity, an ability to connect and network with other people, and advocacy are currently insulated from the onslaught of AI – the next question is for how long.

Alexander Ross is a Sydney-based lawyer working with the knowledge team at King & Wood Mallesons. Prior to KWM he worked for Thomson Reuters’ own Practical Law, as an associate in restructuring and insolvency at Squire Patton Boggs and at a NewLaw startup.

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