If you think replacing lawyers with robots is a good idea (there are about a million lawyer jokes that come to mind when I write that), you may be in luck. A new report by a tech consulting firm says that within 15 years, robots will replace most lawyers. This is due to advances in artificial intelligence, and the trend will lead to the structural collapse of most law firms.
As appealing as that future may sound, those statements need a little explanation and clarification. Artificial intelligence isn’t likely to end the job of any lawyer that interacts with humans – much like we do here at your friendly neighborhood law firm. Artificial intelligence hasn’t gotten far enough to argue a case down at the courthouse, or provide a human dimension to giving advice to clients.
What they are talking about are the millions of low level associates at very large law firms who essentially do grunt work for a living – research and document reviews. This type of job is a primary first stop out of law school. I bet the majority of you reading this would be surprised that it exists.
The largest of law firms represent multi-million dollar companies in civil suits and corporate matters. Part of that job is reading through documents and poring over electronic data – tons and tons of documents and data. For example, if you sue a medical equipment manufacturer for faulty design, you will have to review the reams of data about that design, all of the data regarding testing, emails sent by management regarding the equipment, medical records of those people who had the equipment placed in them, and on and on.
The big corporation you are suing isn’t going to helpfully point you to the evidence against them. They are going to back up a dump truck full of paper or computer hard drives to your front door and make you look through it to find your smoking gun.
Law firms that do this sort of work have to hire hundreds of human beings to review all of that data looking for evidence. And they cannot just hire anyone off the street. They have to hire a lawyer, because the lawyer is bound by attorney-client confidentiality. They cannot leave your firm and go work for the competition after they find something juicy. There are millions of lawyers for who this is a sole source of income. They show up at work, sit in a cubicle, and look through data all day long – searching for that needle in the haystack.
Other low level associates just do legal research all day to support the arguments made in court by the partners at the firm. They sit in cubicles and read cases all day, looking for good precedent for their case. And they bill hundreds of dollars per hour while doing it.
These are the types of lawyers that could be replaced by a robot. A smart computer could find the needle in the haystack, or do all the legal research for a brief due in court – and they could it for a fraction of the cost.
The authors of the report discussed two case studies where a law firm billed over $2 million in fees for this sort of research. Another firm did a similar type of job using artificial intelligence for $100,000. That is quite a cost savings to the client, and firms using artificial intelligence will have a definite leg up in the future with this type of work.
If this future comes to past, we will see a lack of entry level lawyer jobs. Those jobs are traditionally the first step in your way up the corporate ladder. If they are gone, there will be less jobs for those coming out of law school, which will lead to less people going to law school, and less lawyers overall.
Sooooooo. Is this a bad thing? You probably won’t expect me to say this, but I don’t think so. There are entirely too many lawyers in our country now. Too many young kids have spent the past several years hiding from a bad economy by continuing their education. Often, that means they went to law school. So we are being flooded with newly minted lawyers out there working at Starbucks. (We recently advertised for a paralegal and had at least 3 lawyers fresh out of law school apply for the job.)
I am not unsympathetic to the plight of these young lawyers, but reality is a cold slap in the face. This is not good for our economy. Just because you were able to get into law school and pass the bar doesn’t mean there is a market for your services. The economy just cannot support all the lawyers coming into the work force. But they still have those ginormous student loans to pay back. What do they do? Run for congress? (Old joke – What do you call an unemployed lawyer? Congressman.)
You heard it here first! This lawyer agrees there are too many lawyers out there.