The New York Times recently poured cold water on the notion that artificial intelligence is on the verge of replacing lawyers. A quote from the article correctly identifies the logical error that underlies the slippery slope-type theorizing:
“There is this popular view that if you can automate one piece of the work, the rest of the job is toast,” said Frank Levy, a labor economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “That’s just not true, or only rarely the case.”
This has been the story of the practice of law for at least the past 30 years or so and didn’t start with the recent advances in natural language processing for document review and similar developments. Over the years, new technologies have reduced or eliminated time-consuming aspects of the job without eliminating the job of attorney – computers replaced typewriters, automated redlining programs replaced hand redlining, email replaced physical delivery of paper, etc. While these developments have certainly affected employment in the industry overall, with sharp reductions in support staff such as legal secretaries, it hasn’t at all changed the basic arrangement that if you’re buying a company or bringing a lawsuit, you need to hire a law firm to look out for your interests, and there is a person at the law firm that needs to oversee the process.
The growth of form agreement purveyors like LegalZoom actually illustrates this point, rather than heralding the death of the legal profession. When these companies were getting started, they would have disclaimers noting that they are not intended to be substitutes for legal advice – but the inclusion of these notices seemed more about protecting the company from unauthorized practice of law claims than truly getting the purchasers of the forms to hire a lawyer. Now, however, the marketing from these companies is more focused on connecting their customers with lawyers to assist with the process. Ultimately, you can design your website to ask customers a thousand questions and then spit out the right form agreement, but the parties to the agreement are inevitably going to have questions about the agreement, explanation of possible scenarios that could ensue, a desire to negotiate certain provisions, etc. There may be a time when artificial intelligence can handle all of that, but we’re far from it now, and these fears shouldn’t dissuade aspiring lawyers from pursuing the profession. If anything, as a result of technology, they will be able to practice their craft with far less drudgery than older attorneys have experienced.