Artificial intelligence will 'not completely replace' solicitors

Legal News | 16 March 2016

Jonathan Smithers

Technological developments inspire lawyers to think differently about the future, says Law Society president

The president of the Law Society has stated that artificial intelligence (AI) will not make the solicitor profession redundant, despite predictions that robot lawyers will dominate the legal services market in the decades to come.

Speaking on the second day of SJ Live 2016, Jonathan Smithers said: 'AI has become part of our lives. Its uses will become more complex and sophisticated.

'Legal self-diagnosis, facilitated by AI, is likely to be more readily available. However, it will never be a complete replacement for solicitors.'

AI has been touted as the next big disruption in legal services. Riverview Law, for example, recently unveiled 'Kim', technology comprising virtual assistants to improve the efficiency of in-house legal teams.

Smithers admitted that many law firms are rethinking their processes and business models thanks, in part, to advances in technology. This in turn is leading some legal businesses to reassess what skills, knowledge, or aptitudes are needed for new staff, particularly trainees.

'Being qualified as a solicitor might not be enough. Proficiency on social media, communications, and even coding can be real assets for firms when directly coupled with expert legal advice,' he remarked.

'Firms are also reviewing their own learning and development programmes, and finding ways to support their staff in the use of new technologies and help them to prepare areas of law which may change more rapidly, such as intellectual property or data protection.

'Technological developments are inspiring solicitors to think differently about the future,' he added.

Smithers's comments follow the recent publication of the Law Society's report 'The Future of Legal Services', which identified the key opportunities, threats, and drivers for change in the market over the next five years.

In a wide-ranging speech in London today, the society's president warned that the pace of globalisation and the wider domestic political agendas will continue to drive change in the legal industry.

'In addition to changes in the legal market, the government's policy on justice and legal issues also has an impact on the profession,' said Smithers.

'Almost a year ago the Lord Chancellor acknowledged that in England and Wales there are two nations in our justice system: one for the rich and another for everybody else.

'I agree with his assessment. Not only are we seeing a two nation justice system but also a significant erosion of the rule of law.'

To reinforce his argument, the senior partner of Cooper Burnett explained that, as a result of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (LASPO) Act 2012, some 600,000 fewer people are now entitled to civil legal aid, a number 'roughly equivalent to the entire population of Luxembourg', said Smithers.

'Court and tribunal fees have been increased by up to 600 per cent,' he added. 'It is 40 times more expensive in England and Wales than New York. These fees disproportionately affect people on lower incomes and small businesses.'

It is against the backdrop of legal aid cuts, court fee hikes, and the closure of 86 courts and tribunals that the government has announced an inquiry into the legal profession.

While the Ministry of Justice is preparing to consult on the separation of regulation and representation in the legal services sector, the Competition and Markets Authority is leading a study on the competitiveness of the market and the potential barriers of access.

'These potential changes to the sector present to us an opportunity for a vision of simpler and better regulation to protect consumers,' commented Smithers in the latest back and forth between Chancery Lane and the Solicitors Regulation Authority, which is campaigning for a total separation of power from the Law Society.

'At a time of uncertainty it is vital that we create a new regulatory landscape to protect England and Wales as the global jurisdiction of choice,' he continued. 'The perception of legal independence, free from state interference, is crucial.

'The Law Society believes that the profession should be responsible for setting the standard of entry and to award the professional title of solicitor.'

The chairman of Wilmington Legal, Mark Solon, who was chairing the session, suggested to  Smithers that the Law Society was really the Solicitors Society and the term 'lawyer' was much broader than in the past. He also asked if the various professional bodies should join forces in a revamped Law Society.

Responding, the president said this would be anti-competitive. However, several recent research reports have predicted a bluring of the roles of those involved in delivering legal services. Perhaps this is an idea whose time is coming. 

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