It’s been a grand week for sweeping claims about the future of the legal profession.
Just a couple of days ago we were treated to football pundit Gary Lineker holding forth about the alleged manipulations of family lawyers and suggesting that we all really need is an unspecified “mathematical equation” for divorcing couples.
And now comes the contribution of Professor Richard Susskind, the colourfully surnamed expert on the use of computers in law (‘Susskind’ means ‘sweet child’ in German). He is a newspaper columnist, author of several books and IT advisor to the Lord Chief Justice.
Speaking at a Law Society legal management conference this week, Mr Susskind went way beyond routine office IT issues like whether or not to install Windows 10 or whether iPads are an adequate substitute for the traditional laptop. Instead he outlined a scenario that seems at first glance to have come straight from the pages of a science fiction novel.
In short, he predicted a dramatic growth in the capabilities of artificial intelligence, or AI as it now commonly called. By the early 2020s – just a few alarmingly short years away – he claims AI will be able to respond to questions about the law and diagnose legal problems.
Can anyone say RoboLawyer?!
But we shouldn’t worry about this, he suggests, because we lawyers can use our few remaining years at the forefront of the legal profession to remodel themselves as ‘knowledge engineers’.
He told delegates:
“For the next five years the legal profession will work on using better human resource models, delegate to paralegals, move to better locations and give lawyers far better systems.”
Then, he declared:
“In the 2020s we will see technologies that change the way we work – you are no longer face-to-face advisers, you are a person putting in systems and processes.”
This idea would appear to be government’s much discussed online court proposal taken to the next level and the nth degree.
According to a report in The Law Society Gazette, Susskind challenged lawyers to change their whole perception of IT.
“You can say ”that is for the technology industry to sort out”, or you can be part of the technology industry.”
Law schools are in danger of falling behind the times, he suggested, continuing to train lawyers in the traditional mould and failing to consider the implications of artificial intelligence.
Law students too needed to adjust their expectations, he claimed, from becoming advisors to becoming technologists.
One of Mr Susskind’s books was entitled The End of Lawyers? Its follow-up? Tomorrow’s Lawyers: An Introduction to Your Future.
It would seem he takes a certain relish in the topic.
Naturally reader of the Gazette had plenty to say about these predictions and this morning I spent a happy half hour wading through their comments. A lot of mordant wit and a touch of gallows humour.
Where do we even begin? Artificial intelligence – once a science fiction fantasy – is certainly now a thing, and an increasingly mainstream thing at that, no longer confined to shiny computer laboratories. In fact, most of carry artificially intelligent agents around in our pockets every day, in the form of mobile apps like Siri and Google Now.
But of course, there is a very long way from asking Siri to tell you a joke or outline tomorrow’s weather to asking for legal advice. Mr Susskind is of course much better qualified than I to discuss the true capabilities of AI in 2016: information technology moves very quickly of course, and maybe it really will have reached the level of complexity needed to provide a facsimile of legal expertise in five or so years’ time. But robolawyers? I cannot see it myself.
Yes, lawyers train for years to acquire the necessary expertise – it’s a hard slog towards qualification – but there is more to being a good lawyer than knowledge. There is also the human touch.
If go to see a doctor, we expect a little sympathy, engagement and encouragement, not just a coldly mechanical analysis of whatever may be wrong with us. This aspect of being a doctor is so important that it has its own name: bedside manner.
Family lawyers at least have a very similar relationship to our clients. Yes, we are there to offer expertise and guidance, but a lot of the time, we must do in the midst of a very difficult and stressful time in the client’s life. Many of the people who come to see me and my team may be deeply distressed, in need of counselling and possibly even a prescription for antidepressants. Are such people really going to be satisfied with a few legal formulae parroted by an AI system?
I don’t think so. For all our 21st century immersion in all things IT, smartphones, tablets and the internet, we all still need that human touch, and especially so at the most difficult and meaningful stages of our lives.