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AI conundrum: Replacing experience with value?

AI conundrum: Replacing experience with value?


If artificial intelligence can help junior lawyers handle more complex tasks and satisfy their millennial appetite for quality work while meeting client demand for speed and cost savings, where will that leave senior solicitors, wonders Professor Joan Loughrey

The impact that new technologies will have on the legal services market has attracted much debate of late and emerged as a key theme during a Leeds Law Society conference earlier this month. A vital question to consider is whether artificial intelligence will replace lawyers, or whether it will add value to what they do.

Most would agree that the days of assigning routine tasks to paralegals and other junior lawyers are numbered. Usually this is attributed to pressure from clients for speed and cost savings, as Georgina Powling, a partner at Addleshaw Goddard, said during a panel discussion, with clients asking ‘Isn’t there an app for that?’ But pressures will also come from within firms who will find it hard to retain their millennial fee-earners if they are not offered quality work.

Rather than replace lawyers, artificial intelligence (AI) was more likely to change the tasks they carry out, the panel agreed. At one end of the scale, clients will always require bespoke advisory work. At the other end, lawyers will be needed to check what computers have done or risk a negligence action if things go wrong. But in the middle, AI will provide more junior lawyers with the tools to carry out more sophisticated high-level work that they previously could not have done – in effect, producing ‘cyborg’ lawyers.

The idea that AI augments human intelligence rather than replaces it was later picked up by Professor Netta Cohen of the School of Computing at the University of Leeds. A computer, Deep Blue, beat chess Grand Master Gary Kasporov, she reminded the audience. Yet in 2005 two amateur chess players, using three average computers, won a chess tournament, beating both grandmasters and other computers. It proved that a combination of machine and human intelligence was more powerful than each acting alone.

The prospect of more junior and less expensive ‘cyborg’ lawyers having the ability to exploit AI to handle more complex work has the double benefit of satisfying client demand for cost savings and millennial demands for quality work.

Giving taxis and Uber as an example, Lexis-Nexis’s Andrew Lilley suggested that new technologies should enable lawyers to produce the same end product as before, but alter the mode of delivery, by promoting speed and client convenience. This was echoed by Shakeel Dad, a director at Walker Morris, who said millennial clients expected immediate responses from law firms, increasingly by way of text.

Even if AI and other technologies do not lead to fewer lawyers overall, they could well have an impact on firm structures. Most predictions suggest AI will have the most impact on the lower tiers of the profession. But if AI means that higher grade work can be given to more junior lawyers, there could be a reduction in demand for more senior fee-earners.

To meet this challenge more senior fee earners will have to adapt by offering new services and products made possible by technology. Still, it is millennials and the generations to come, who having grown up with technology, should be best placed to exploit these new opportunities. This could lead to the most innovative and competitive firms becoming less hierarchical as the expertise to manage the new legal environment resides in their junior members. This would suit millennials, who, it is claimed, dislike hierarchical management structures, and prefer a collaborative team-work approach, both within and outside their firms.

These developments raise questions for legal education, as Richard Susskind, the author of The End of Lawyers has long suggested. Law degrees and vocational education need to promote the use of technology, project management, and other skills. Yet the proposed solicitors qualifying examination (SQE), the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s controversial new central test for aspiring solicitors, has a narrow, traditional focus that discourages innovation in legal education and training.

Innovation and market disruption will come as a result of client pressure and new technologies. But the impact of millennials may also be significant, not only because of their familiarity with technology but also insofar as they differ in their approaches to work from previous generations.

Professor Joan Loughrey is deputy head of the School of Law and a member of the Centre for Business Law and Practice at the University of Leeds