When the printing press first appeared, scribes who had previously made a living out of copying out manuscripts revolted en masse. They railed against this new technology, decrying it as a threat to their livelihood and to the care and skill they once prized in their work. Of course they didn’t appreciate how it democratised and unleashed an unforeseen tide of ideas. Today the printing press is no longer a new invention but this historical snapshot echoes the introduction of artificial intelligence in the legal profession. Once law was the jurisdiction of highly trained individuals who could offer select services on a case-by-case basis. AI threatens that. Does this means that lawyers will become an antique, like scribes? And is this a good or a bad thing for the public?

One thing many professionals can agree on is that AI will reduce most of the drudgery in the law. Previously law firms would hire first year students to do the jobs that no one else would do. This included due diligence, scrutinising contracts and other monotonous jobs. But now AI programs have entered the market that can do these repetitive tasks in half the time. Kira Systems reviews contracts in any language and compares that to traditional forms. ROSS Intelligence analyses documents and provides answers based on an internal database of legal knowledge. IBM has also created Watson, a program that will have similar applications. In terms of efficiency, these programs far outstrip their human counterparts. In one notable competition, an AI, Case Cruncher, was pitted against 100 experienced commercial lawyers to see who could best predict the outcomes of past cases. Case Cruncher achieved a success rate of 86%, 20 percent higher than the humans. The application of AI to the grunt work seems to be a no brainer. It would reduce time and would be more accurate than a human worker. Some law firms have already adopted this technology. One notable example is McCann Fitzgerald used Kira to review 68,000 documents in the IBRC v Sean Quinn case.

 So what do legal professionals make of this? The legal industry is often depicted as one which is reluctant to embrace change at best. AI would appear to be an ominous threat to their business, Yet ironically much of the response has been positive so far. Many law firms embrace the possibility of an AI taking over the mundane work of due diligence as it would free them up to focus on more pressing matters. McKinsey even conducted a survey in Washington DC where 80% of lawyers believe that AI would have a positive effect on the legal industry. This is due to the fact that without so much time consumed, lawyers can focus on more intellectually satisfying work and serve a wider base of clients. It appears that the scribes have changed their minds.

However there is a catch. Currently AI can only do simple tasks, and at the outset it seems that’s all it will be employed for. McKinsey estimated that 23% of a lawyer’s job could be automated. Outside of that there is a vast bulk of tasks that will require a human touch: advocating, conciliation, negotiation. Beyond that, arguing the law in a subjective capacity will require AI to make value judgments, which is well beyond any robotic intelligence. Of course jobs will still be lost. The oncoming adoption of AI will hit first year graduates the hardest and some predict that 100,000 jobs will be affected over the next 20 years. But lawyers’ optimism currently seems well-founded. AI may replace the laborious tasks of old, but humans will still be required in other areas for now. However the future is not set and technology may throw up even more disruption in the next few years. What exactly will occur is something neither a human nor an AI can predict.  

Daniel Forde – Law Editor