Richard Susskind says robots will make lawyers obsolete – is he right?

If you know of Richard Susskind, you’ll probably have heard his trademark claim: that robots in the form of artificial intelligence will increasingly perform work done by human lawyers. Susskind sees this trend transforming the legal profession, bringing with it an era of unprecedented disruption and economic change, ending the practice of law as we know it.

But is he right? The cynical argument is that he is leveraging shock value to raise his profile and sell books and speaking engagements. His provocative ideas (including those contained in his books such as Tomorrow’s Lawyers and The End of Lawyers) have polarised the global legal community.

Susskind envisions two futures. One in which technology streamlines and optimises existing professions, automating pre-existing practices without creating fundamental change. The second, unfolding in parallel, is one in which many problems traditionally tackled by professionals will be solved by technology. In Susskind’s parallel vision, technology is innovating, going beyond what professionals have traditionally been able to achieve, and he predicts this will happen in mere decades.

Predictions are one thing. Whether they turn out to be accurate is another. And yet while the business of prophesying future impacts of technology is understandably fraught, Susskind actually has a fairly decent track record in his forecasts. In 1996, he predicted that email would emerge as the principal form of communication between lawyers and their clients. His controversial claim saw Susskind publicly excoriated by the Law Society of England and Wales. The Society considered the claim so dangerous that the Society even claimed he was bringing the legal profession into disrepute, and shouldn’t be allowed to speak in public.

Luckily for Susskind, it turned out he was on the money: modern communication is almost impossible to imagine without email. But what about the robots?

Robots are here – the hiring of ROSS

One could, at a superficial level at least, say that Susskind’s future has already arrived. US law firm BakerHostetler “hired” an artificially intelligent lawyer in 2016 to assist with its bankruptcy practice. IBM’s ROSS will conduct legal research for the practice group, reviewing legal documents to support the firm’s cases. ROSS’s specific function is to bring up excerpts from different documents based on its own hypotheses, which the lawyers will then upvote or downvote. This saves time when compared with traditional “static” software that requires lawyers to navigate and review large volumes of legal texts and cases themselves to identify important information.

What this development shows is a more nuanced vision of the future. The nascence of ROSS and other AI solutions perhaps does not mean the end of lawyers just yet; rather we are seeing instead the first of Susskind’s two futures, where technology is complementing and assisting the work of legal professionals. The system requires the expertise of lawyers to have any value. Its intended use is to reduce time spent researching, and the assumption is this will reduce costs – two undeniable benefits to firms and lawyers.

The picture is arguably not so rosy for paralegals, however. ROSS is an example of how the work of the paralegal or legal assistant is under threat when AI can effectively conduct research tasks traditionally performed by these junior resources. The perilous state of the paralegal has been confirmed by a study into the computerisation of jobs by Oxford University in 2013, which places paralegals in the “high risk” category when it comes to their jobs being replaced by robots. In a real-world example, we can already see this occurring in the area of e-discovery – computers can code vast numbers of documents in a matter of hours.

The game changer: AI and access to justice

The changes are multifaceted, and definitely not all bad. While some lawyers may feel threatened, others will see the vast opportunities that exist for new players to enter the legal services market. These might include super low-cost firms that deliver discrete services for a fraction of the cost of traditional firms through reliance on a suite of technologies, including AI.

Other benefits of robots in law include providing genuine access to justice by those who can’t afford to lawyer up. Australian National Legal Aid and RMIT University is showcasing a Dutch technology called Rechtwijzer that could offer online dispute resolution to those with family, employment and debt recovery disputes. The sophisticated AI offers options based on resolutions achieved by others. Not only does this provide a cheaper alternative to court, it empowers users to take a role in resolving their conflicts, rather than someone else imposing a solution.

So where does all this leave the modern lawyer? Whether Susskind is right or not, the trends point to a need for lawyers to add value through technology. Clients of the future will want more for less, and technology can no doubt assist. Moving away from visions of a quiet AI invasion, lawyers need to think outside the square and focus on working with technologies of the future  that will solve the problems of society, such as the fundamental problem of access to justice.

Susskind’s vision has the potential to make the services provided by traditional professionals far more widely available than was previously thought possible. Technology’s democratisation of the professions means lawyers and other professional service providers may not remain the gatekeepers for much longer.