The future will be more efficient, not artificial

By Richard Prangell|13 February 2020

AI isn’t coming for our jobs in the middle of the night, for if there is one task for which humans will always be better than computers, it is interfacing with other humans, writes Richard Prangell.

For casual consumers of legal services, lawyers often appear to be a little more than expensive roadblocks on the path to greener pastures.

Perhaps most tellingly, Justin Kan, the founder of legal tech start-up Atrium, said two years ago: “This was a problem I’d seen in my own experiences, where all these parts around legal were like a blocker to what I wanted to do… it’s almost like a tax you have as a business owner. That’s why I wanted to attack this problem.”

Although I can understand this perspective, the fundamental mistake Atrium, and many legal technologists, have made is confusing the treatment (lawyers) with the cause (the legal system).

As lawyers, our role is to navigate the vagaries of the legal system, a system that was crafted by, and made of, human beings. If there is one task for which humans will always be better than computers, it is interfacing with other humans. Or, to put it in the language of technologists, legal services necessarily need to be provided over a peer-to-peer human network.

Despite buzz to the contrary, I posit that no technology company, be it Atrium or otherwise, is likely to develop an artificially intelligent lawyer on a timeline that is meaningful to anyone you’re ever likely to meet.

Of course, that isn’t to say that there aren’t abundant technological gains to be had in the everyday practice of law, and for perhaps the first time in a while, practitioners in sole and boutique practices have access to them, too.

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Depending on your appetite, you can welcome your clients to your office with an iPad on a stick or share a virtual secretary with dozens of other lawyers. You can have your computer track your billable hours for you, and then get paid automatically by direct debit, or with bitcoin or by tapping your phone. You can finally throw away your paper files and build contracts that automatically update themselves.

If you know where to look for solutions, there’s less work to be done than ever – but with less work to be done, what will happen to our profession?

Well, we are lucky to already have a model of disruption and innovation that we can follow.

When the first digital spreadsheets and accounting software solutions came into existence in the 1980s, they caused substantial disruption to the accounting needs of large corporates – suddenly, there was less busy work to be done, and the work could be done by less-qualified people.

In response to this disruption, some accounting firms moved down the value chain, providing lower-cost work at a higher volume. Others moved up the value chain, offering higher-level financial insights to their clients at higher margins. Today, the largest “accounting” firms provide everything from management consulting to software development services.

Like the digital spreadsheet, the desktop computer and the smartphone, it goes without saying that the highly efficient, technology-driven practice of law will eventually be de rigueur.

Despite these changes, and as our accounting colleagues have proven, there will always be a need for high-value, specialised professionals.

In the meantime, I suggest we all automate a little more, work a little less and stop worrying about artificial intelligence coming for the profession in the night.

After all, if $65 million dollars and all the Silicon Valley software developers you can get your hands on can’t replace lawyers, perhaps we have some time left.

Richard Prangell is a sole practice technology lawyer at Viridian Lawyers and teaches in commercial and corporate law at the University of Technology, Sydney.

The future will be more efficient, not artificial
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