REUTERS | Kacper Pempel

The rise of the machines: new technology and its impact on the professions

I have recently attended two events organised by Thomson Reuters. The first was a day dedicated to knowledge management – specifically management of legal know how; the second was devoted to analysis of trends and developments in insurance law.

Despite their different subject matters, significant portions of both days were given over to the common theme of “the impact of technology” and methods of planning for and capitalising on new technologies available – with consideration being given to the longer-term consequences of computers’ increasing ability to outperform humans for the future of roles in the legal profession.

The knowledge management (KM) forum focused in part on:

  • the possible benefits of KM software for PSLs or in-house counsel in lightening the burden of curating their organisation’s know-how database and ensuring that fee earners or internal clients are using up-to-date precedents – including by enabling automatic generation and analysis of documents;
  • exploitation of KM software for business development purposes, for example by provision of statistics recording exactly what has previously been advised on; and
  • using KM software to preserve, share and pass on institutional knowledge from one lawyer to another and avoid duplication of work already done.

At the insurance law forum, participants discussed:

  • the applicability of general technological advances to the insurance industry, such as whether certain features of blockchain technology might make it unsuitable for use in an insurance context – as well as other recent InsurTech developments (see InsurTech: where are we now? for an overview);
  • new industry-specific software and projects such as Placing Platform Limited (PPL), a Lloyd’s of London online platform which seeks to streamline aspects of the underwriting process and which allows online generation of documentation; and
  • the challenges posed by the sheer volume of data now available – and how to translate this data into meaningful business information.

The future of the professions

However, over and above these specific applications of technology, some broader questions about how new technologies might change the legal workplace were aired.

  • Would, for example, the automation of such typical trainee tasks as due diligence or disclosure review lead to law firms taking on far fewer trainees?
  • Would technology which dramatically reduces time spent on managing, updating and rationalising an organisation’s bank of know-how and precedents mean that the role of PSLs or in-house lawyers (particularly junior roles) will be diminished?
  • And in future, what are organisations who are seeking to employ a knowledgeable senior lawyer or PSL to do, if there have been no junior roles available to those wishing to enter the profession?

The future of the professions, and the threat posed to them in their current form by new technologies, was the subject of a recent Chatham House lecture given by Professor Richard and Dr Daniel Susskind (as well as being the title of their 2015 book). (The impact of technology, among other factors, on some categories of employment has been highlighted by several prominent cases on the “gig economy” recently: see Modern employment: back to the future? and related Practical Law materials for some further details).

What are our chances of winning?

The lecture is a wide-ranging and fascinating discussion of how the world of work has reacted to and adapted to new technologies throughout the ages (it begins with a quotation from the Iliad). Much of the content will be of little comfort to those who might wish to preserve the status quo in the legal profession. The Susskinds pose compelling challenges to some of the arguments typically made to “prove” that computers could never replace a human being in a particular role, such as their lack of judgment or creativity. They point out that:

  • Many of the tasks that humans perform in the course of their employment are, in fact, routine and can easily be delegated to computers.
  • Many of those tasks that are not routine can also be (better) performed by computers. We should not fall into the trap of thinking that a computer must mimic a human approach to a problem in order for its solution to be valid (which line of reasoning the Susskinds term the “AI fallacy”): computers can achieve the same – or a better – result through sheer force of processing power applied to large sets of data.

Computers may not “understand” the law as a human can, but their analysis of big data on cases already tried, for example, makes them far better than humans at answering the question clients often put: What are our chances of winning?

We should remember, when tempted to dismiss such statements, that Professor Susskind was right in 1996 when he forecast that email would soon be the main means of communication between lawyers and clients – although at the time he was accused of bringing the legal profession into disrepute by doing so. Indeed, the future is already here for some employees of Fukoko Insurance Company, who were recently “replaced” by artificial intelligence software.

If you can’t beat them…

So what should the professions be doing to prepare for a future where computers can perform both routine and non-routine tasks as well as – if not better than – humans?

It should not be lost sight of that, while new technology may make some existing roles redundant, it will also create new ones. In adopting technologies which necessitate new ways of working, organisations will need to ensure that they take on employees with the expertise to manage them. At the KM forum, for example, there was discussion of the increasing role played by project managers within organisations.

For those already working in the legal profession, the more comforting aspect of the Susskinds’ lecture is that one of their key suggestions in this regard – training and retraining – is something that is already on people’s radar. The fact that technology was such a hot and recurrent topic at both events is an indication that people are grappling with the issue, even if it may not be the case (as was suggested would be a good idea at the insurance law forum) that trainee lawyers and NQs are already learning to code as well as to practise the law. Some companies have already taken steps to manage the impact of technology on their employees’ futures:  earlier this year, for example, Aviva asked its staff whether a robot could do their job (subscription required); those who answered ‘yes’ were to be offered training for another role at the firm.

There may be a temptation to regard new technologies as more likely to create burdens than benefits in the work environment: email and internet-enabled mobile devices have not, for example, necessarily led to a shorter or easier working day for many. But – new roles and retraining aside – a silver lining of all this new technology is that it may also fulfil some of the promises made about it and save professionals valuable time currently spent on repetitive tasks which can easily be automated.


Practical Law In-house Alice Southall

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