human lawyer in a suit shaking hands with a robot also in a suit

Will the rise of ‘The Machines’ signal the end of the role of people in the law?


At the moment the seemingly unstoppable force in the world is the rise of technology and, more specifically, the rise of AI and automation (two concepts which are different yet often discussed in the same conversation – as they are here). On the face of it the difference between them is simple: AI involves a machine learning process which replicates the iterative improvement process (learning) which occurs in a human brain. In contrast automation is focussed solely on an improvement in efficiency using a machine to either increase speed or reliability or to otherwise decrease cost per task.

AI is touching all areas at the moment: Babylon is developing AI which helps with medical diagnoses; Business Insider recently talked about a $450 billion opportunity to use it in the banking sector; and it is even touching on board games with Google DeepMind developing AlphaGo to defeat the human world champion at Go. Inevitably AI is also moving into the legal sector with products such as Kira, Luminance and others now being implemented in law firms from Slaughter and May and the rest of the Magic Circle through to small boutique players as well as everybody in between.

This implementation of technology in law firms is, now, a reality which has been driven by clients as well as the law firms themselves. As Thompson Reuters acknowledged in a recent article, “C-suites are becoming savvier” when it comes to AI and there is an “unspoken expectation that their legal teams will follow suit”. From the experience and conversations we have had with Partners in law firms this is certainly true, except it is not unspoken and actually a very present part of conversations with clients about how their matters will be resourced.

This is also something which comes up more and more in conversations which we are having with junior lawyers, including at a recent LPC Forum event at The Law Society, where people were wondering how their role will be affected by these new technologies. At the moment there is certainly no risk of lawyers being replaced but, the question is, what about in 5 years, 10 years or 20 years?

The risk of lawyers losing jobs due to automation is low as only highly commoditised work lends itself to automation. Even where this has been available in the past, for example in the context of DIY will writing kits, the legal services market has not had to worry as advice has easily been able to focus on the more bespoke work where added complexities nullify the benefits from an automated product.

On the other hand the integration of AI is perceived in some quarters to present much more of a risk. The thinking behind this is that, although it is not currently able to replace the thinking of a lawyer, if the technology is trained up ad infinitum, marginally improving with each use, then it will be able to deal with more and more examples of unusual situations which would have previously needed bespoke solutions.

Whilst this makes sense and certainly is something for those in the legal profession to be aware of and talk about, I do not think that the role of lawyers will be replaced by even the perfect AI tool.

Going back to my opening remarks that the differences between them seem to be simple (automation = clunky & low value work whilst AI = developing technology & high end work), I think that actually their impact on the legal profession will be very similar. At the core of the conversation about their impact both types of product require the lawyers to focus on higher end more bespoke work. Both types of product therefore fit into a spectrum where clients will be comfortable with varying degrees of personalisation to their service. The person happy to have an automated will is a different service user to the person happy to have a machine run through their house purchase, who is again comfortable with a different level of diligence to the corporate clients involved in a £1 billion merger. In each situation the lawyers will need to offer a service which offers good value for the additional risk which it is going to negate.

In the context of commercial law firms working on high value matters I think that the value proposition provided by lawyers able to make judgements in grey areas will remain compelling. In the absence of clear statutes then the common law system, even where there seems to be a precedent, has room for manoeuvre as Boris Johnson found recently in the Supreme Court prorogation ruling.

This challenge, of making sure the service provided represents good value for clients, is not new across either law or any other industry. In the same way that using lower cost lawyers, often outside London, on some matters instead of resourcing them from London has not killed the legal market in the capital, neither AI nor automation will lead to the demise of lawyers (by which I mean people, instead of robots, being lawyers).

For junior lawyers coming through, the challenge will be to make sure that they are working with firms who understand this. Ensuring that you are working in a law firm which embraces innovation is essential as only these firms will be able to provide and develop the value proposition, which enables them to attract the best clients and the best work which requires them to add the extra bespoke advice on top.

If you would like to discuss the market and law firms which are leading the way in innovation and future planning, please feel free to get in touch with Luke Woodward at or on 0203 096 4553.

Luke has been with the Chadwick Nott for 5 years and helps find permanent moves for lawyers at all levels from NQ up to Partner, across all practice areas in off-shore law firms, top US firms, UK City and Magic Circle firms as well as assisting with moves into mid-town and West End firms. As well as career advice, Luke is able to support his candidates with the process of constructing both CVs and business plans as appropriate. Luke studied law at Gonville & Caius College Cambridge. 

How useful did you find this article?
Thank you for your feedback!
5.0 / 5.0