Ghost of Christmas Future: Lawyer Replacement to Come?

Everyone has a different family holiday movie ritual. Maybe your cup of tea is It’s a Wonderful Life or Miracle on 34th Street or Love Actually.

In my house it’s Scrooged.

When confronted by the Ghost of his old boss, Frank Cross (played by the indomitable Bill Murray) says, “No, you are a hallucination brought on by alcohol… Russian vodka poisoned by Chernobyl!” In many ways, this is the reaction many lawyers have to the prospect they may be replaced by artificial intelligence in the years to come.

For those who think this is a distant possibility, meet: Hans Moravec, a professor at the Robotics Institute of Carnegie Mellon University who in the 1980s developed techniques in computer vision for determining the region of interest (ROI) in a scene. As he learned in his research, Moravec recognized “it is comparatively easy to make computers exhibit adult level performance on intelligence tests or playing checkers, and difficult or impossible to give them the skills of a one-year-old when it comes to perception and mobility.” This is Moravec’s Paradox.

More recently, theoretical physicist Michio Kaku has said, “The job market of the future will consist of those jobs that robots cannot perform. Our blue-collar work is pattern recognition, making sense of what you see. Gardeners will still have jobs because every garden is different. The same goes for construction workers. The losers are white-collar workers, low-level accountants, brokers, and agents.”

Lawyers are among the class of losers in an AI economy.

This month, the Executive Office of the President of the United States has issued a report, entitled Artificial Intelligence, Automation, and the Economy, that observes: “AI-driven automation will continue to create wealth and expand the American economy in the coming years, but, while many will benefit, that growth will not be costless and will be accompanied by changes in the skills that workers need to succeed in the economy, and structural changes in the economy.”

To understand the future for lawyers, it is helpful to look to the past. Remember travel agents?

In the United States they are now about 13,000 travel agent retail locations, down from the peak of 34,000 in the mid-1990s. That’s roughly a 62% reduction.

You may be too young to remember them well, and at the risk of dating myself, this is how travel arrangements used to work in a pre-Trivago world: You would call up (using a landline) a friendly neighborhood travel agent your friend probably recommended, stop by their office, look through some brochures, and he or she would work their magic to land you a discounted package to your dream destination. The travel agency business model was built on an information imbalance, personal relationships, referrals and newspaper advertising. People used to value travel agents because of their information, relationships and judgment. Travel agents thought their customers would remain loyal in the face of the Internet Revolution because of these traits; they were wrong.

You might say “Well the legal profession is different and besides we [lawyers] survived the Internet and are still here while travel agents are not.” You’d be half right. The legal profession is different because it benefits not only from an information imbalance but an analytical imbalance. In other words, having the information is not enough in the legal context, you have to know what to do with it.

Here some benefits travel agents listed for themselves:

Travel agents…

  • save you time
  • understand the fine print
  • protect your interests
  • have helpful relationships
  • have specialized expertise
  • have valuable advice
  • can prevent hassles
  • work as your troubleshooter

Does any of this sound familiar (or similar to the would be benefits of hiring a lawyer)?

In 2015, the American Bar Association reported 1.3 million licensed lawyers in the United States. If the reduction in numbers of travel agents is any indication, AI may replace as many as 800,000 lawyers across America.

“Why then,” you may ask again, “have lawyers not already been displaced by the Internet Revolution?” Lawyers have not yet been replaced because there’s been no technology that could feasibly address the analytical imbalance, but with the advent of AI that has all changed. Now it is possible for software to not only know the appropriate law that applies to a given factual scenario but also how to apply the law to facts. It has been said that the goal of law school is to teach students “how to think like a lawyer.” Now that thinking will largely be reduced to code.

The elimination of the informational imbalance in the legal industry led to the rise of various self-help publications like Nolo Press law guides, and thousands upon thousands of legal informational websites.

Now, startups leading the disruption of the analytical imbalance in law include:

DoNotPay – Perhaps the most prolific robot lawyer, created by Stanford freshman Joshua Browder, has taken on 250,000 traffic ticket cases—winning 160,000 of them and saving drivers $4 million in fines since 2014. The service is free and also assists the homeless with claims to public housing.

LawBot – “The world’s most advanced legal chatbot” launched by Cambridge University Law students Ludwig Bull, Rebecca Agliolo, Nadia Abdul, and Jozo Maruscak, LawBot asks users questions in order to figure out whether a crime was committed. This free service can currently address 26 different offences.

Lisa –  Founded by The Naked Lawyer author and lawyer Chrissie Lightfoot, Lisa is a free app aimed at helping entrepreneurs to draw up non-disclosure agreements.

LawDroid – Created by California lawyer Tom Martin, LawDroid is a chatbot, built on Facebook Messenger, that can help entrepreneurs incorporate their business for free, no lawyer required.

Do these services spell the beginning of the end of lawyers as we know them?

In Scrooged, Claire Phillips (Frank Cross’s love interest played by Karen Allen) wisely observed: “That’s the one good thing about regret: it’s never too late. You can always change tomorrow if you want to.”

Should lawyers heed the call and choose to embrace technology to help those in need of justice, and disrupt themselves from within rather than being displaced from without, perhaps tomorrow will be a brighter day for the legal profession.

About Tom Martin

@lawdroid Tom is a legal bot advocate, author and speaker. He is a lawyer and founder of LawDroid (a bot development and consulting company for the legal industry). Tom is also co-founder of Vancouver Legal Hackers, advisor to ATJ Tech Fellow Program, member of ARAG Technology Innovation Committee, and Chair of Education for Group Legal Services Association. Born and raised in Los Angeles, California, Tom now lives in Vancouver, Canada with his wife and two daughters.

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