Looking Into 2016: The Near Future

The Robots Are Coming

The fresh, shiny new year has arrived, and I hope that you are also feeling fresh and shiny after the holiday break. What will 2016 hold for you, jobwise?

Past performance is not necessarily a guide to future performance, but one major development during 2015 that is likely to have some impact on your firm (and therefore on you) in the next year is the fast-moving field of artificial intelligence (AI) and the law.

Some big claims are being made for recent developments: there has been talk of “the demise of lawyers”, and of 2016 being a watershed moment in legal business. Reports that lawyers are going to be obliterated have been much exaggerated, but it is likely that within the next couple of years, AI is going to start affecting your work – in good ways and in bad.

Artificial Intelligence (AI)

Has your boss been looking a bit more harassed recently? This may be because he has been told (by technology companies, mainly) that he may shortly be replaced by a computer. Obviously, technology has been making inroads into the secretary’s job for decades, but now it is the turn of the lawyers themselves to be told that much of their work can be done better, and cheaper, by a smart machine.

Many of the claims sound overblown, but there does seem to be evidence that technology is becoming better at two key legal skills: finding relevant documents in court discovery, and putting together legal research. The key to this development is an IBM “technology platform” called Watson, which can understand “natural language”: in other words, you can talk to it as if it were a human being and it will understand you. You can also ask it questions just as you would ask another human being, and it will answer you on the basis of its (huge) data banks.

But the really crucial thing about Watson is that it can learn, and as it interacts with human beings it can get faster and faster at processing its answers. This is what really distinguishes it from an application like Google Now or Apple’s Siri, for example, and this has been the cause of the dire predictions for the demise of your boss’s job.

Watson has been used by certain doctors in the United States for a couple of years to assist them in making clinical decisions. Obviously it was not a big leap from there to exploring whether Watson could also help lawyers. IT professionals have been asking: will a lawyer with Watson be able to simply ask her computer to find all of the relevant case law for a matter that she is working on, or to sift through what used to be four lever arch files of papers to find the ones that are really important? The answer seems to be that she will.

The experts expect that Watson-based or Watson-like AI along these lines will cut down dramatically on the amount of time that lawyers spend in reading court papers, and in researching and building cases on behalf of their clients.

On the one hand, that means that lawyers may be able to focus their time on work that is more valuable to the client – concentrating just on the essential documents in a case, for example, or applying the law rather than spending hours digging around the Internet for it. On the other, it is also very likely to mean that in the foreseeable future there will be fewer lawyers per office than there are today, because two lawyers can now do the work of three or more. Perhaps predictions about “the death of lawyers” are overdoing it, but there are confident forecasts that a whole rung of middle-ranking fee earners and admin staff will become redundant – in every sense.

This is not a distant prospect: the future is already here, and the first on the firing line may be paralegals. In January 2016 Riverview Law will be launching Kim, a “virtual assistant” which will, we are told, do the work of a paralegal. It is being offered to in-house lawyers first of all, but the plan is to market it more widely. That means, if it needs spelling out, that AI paralegals will be in English law offices this year. Whether they stay there depends on how efficient and cost-effective they are, but their arrival is now a practical reality.

What AI Means for Legal Secretaries

First of all, some of the gloomier forecasts probably need to be considered sceptically. Those of us who were around in the early 1990s will remember how our bosses enthusiastically predicted that dictation software would make all secretaries surplus to requirements. That didn’t happen, largely because legal secretaries can do most document preparation tasks better and quicker than a computer. They also do a lot of other admin tasks that lawyers had simply not really noticed previously; in fact, in some ways the arrival of the new technology led to a better appreciation of the sheer amount and variety of work that legal secretaries do. This new prediction of lawyer wipeout seems to have some similarities with those days.

Lawyers are extremely unlikely to disappear; even if the more optimistic predictions are fulfilled, they are just more likely to leave some very time-consuming tasks to a computer program. They are also likely to be producing as much, or even more, work – even if it is carried out by fewer lawyers. That means that secretaries are still likely to be kept busy, although the focus of their work may shift, and they well may have to get to grips with a program like Kim.

In short, for you and for your boss, it is going to be an interesting year – watch this space!