How Much Should Lawyers Worry About Automation?
Maybe it’s because I work in the software business. Maybe it’s because one of the subjects that fascinates me most is the role technology plays in society. Or, then again, it could be that it’s because I’m a huge fan of Westworld.
Whatever the reason, I’m a little obsessed with the fact that we are in the midst of a transformation that could alter humanity’s relationships with machines. And it’s definitely not just me. In his farewell address this week, President Obama said, “The next wave of economic dislocations won’t come from overseas. It will come from the relentless pace of automation that makes a lot of good, middle-class jobs obsolete.”
We don’t have to worry that the sentient robot Maeve is going to tear out of Westworld, hang her shingle, and fire up an immigration practice. That’s science fiction. As Kevin Kelly observes in his techno-trends bestseller The Inevitable, “In the next 10 years, 99 percent of the artificial intelligence that you will interact with, directly or indirectly, will be nerdly narrow, supersmart specialists.”
Hardly the domain of a lawyer who has to wear many hats dealing with clients. But keep reading (sorry to say, It gets worse.)
Researchers estimate anywhere from 5% to 47% of jobs are at risk of loss to automation. Clearly, taxi, limo and truck drivers need to worry about automation. After all, Uber is already testing self-driving cars in Pittsburgh, and the first automated truck dropped off it’s first payload: Beer.
However, surely lawyers are immune to automation, right?
On Thursday, the McKinsey Global Institute released a report suggesting that the pace of jobs lost to automation may be slower than we previously thought. Unfortunately, lawyers are the one profession singled out by the most conservative range of estimates. According to the The New York Times: “Today, it is the rise of artificial intelligence in increasingly clever software and machines that is stirring concern. The standard view is that routine work in factories and offices, like bookkeeping or operating basic machinery, is most vulnerable to automation. But A.I. software that can read and analyze text or speech—so-called natural language processing—is encroaching on the work of professionals.” The article goes on to say that Frank Levy, a labor economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology explains that there’s a lot of legal work that is routine. It says, “But that routine work, sifting through documents for relevant information, is wrapped in language, which had protected lawyers from the effects of automation. But no longer.”
Can machines ever replace the comfort that a lawyer brings to its human clients? Likely not in our lifetime or our children’s lifetimes anyhow. Can they react on their feet to arguments in trial? That’s not very likely either.
However, will machines be able to process and interpret information better than an associate can? Probably. If it were me, and I took a look around at my value to society, I would focus on the parts that require deep human interaction. If the textual-analytical stuff is your strong suit, you might want to think about expanding that skill set.