The keynote speaker at the Law Society of Northern Ireland’s centenary conference (23 September) was challenged on his view that the legal profession will be disrupted by artificial intelligence (AI).
“If you decide to compete with the machines, you will be swimming against the tide,” lawyer and technologist Prof Richard Susskind told 350 lawyers from the province.
The only other option is to help build the emerging machines, to retool and retrain, he added.
The coming decade will be one of redeployment, not unemployment, he predicted.
A solicitor attendee responded that his clients don’t want to talk to a robot in times of crisis, but want human empathy and connection.
Susskind responded that it was an error to assume that the robots of the future would mimic the work style of lawyers of the past.
Lawyers will be outperformed by machines with unique powers, not by AI that resembles a legal professional, he added.
It is a fallacy to believe that AI will simply copy human capabilities, he said.
Lawyers will be outperformed not by systems that copy us, but by using their unique powers, he said.
Future clients will not be committed to existing processes and methods, they want outcomes, he warned.
“Don’t think that the long term is a refined version of what you have today,” he said in his lecture.
Asking what is the future for solicitors, assumes that solicitors have a future, he added.
“That’s the wrong question. The question we have to ask ourselves is what combination of humans and technology in the future will solve the problems to which today you are the best answer,” he said.
Susskind also pointed out that the latest generation is used to running its affairs entirely online, and it may well be alien to them to enter a solicitor’s office.
“We are going to have to fundamentally rethink the way we deliver legal services,” he continued.
Uncannily accurate predictions
The real excitement of technology comes not with automation of existing services, but in innovation that allows things that weren’t previously possible, he said.
Machines can already source data and make uncannily accurate predictions about case outcomes, he continued.
Added to that, the costs of legal services are becoming unmanageable, in an ever more complex and highly-regulated world, he said.
Solicitors are also under threat from the advent of new providers in the shape of the ‘Big Four’ accounting and consulting firms, he said.
Fundamental disruption ahead
Law tech start-ups present another challenge, and it is a failure of imagination not to accept that a small number of these will fundamentally disrupt the business of law, he said.
It cannot be the case that an information and document-heavy industry such as law will be unaffected by this explosive growth, Prof Susskind added.
Computer systems are increasingly capable and there is no finishing line, quite the reverse, he said.
By 2030, the legal world will be transformed by technologies not yet invented, he predicted, pointing to computers that can detect emotional states and ‘read the room’ – a traditional lawyerly skill.
Absorb passive data
Systems can absorb passive data and the algorithm will make sense of it on the basis of probability, rather than by using legal method.
“If the market can develop techniques that can answer that question more conveniently, more accurately, more swiftly, and with lower costs, then we have to accept there will be no loyalty to traditional models,” he said.