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Why Artificial Intelligence Will Not Replace Lawyers

  • August 26, 2020
  • Shiva Bakhtiary, Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt LLP

With a surge in the number of new legal tech startups come concerned citizens warning that lawyers will soon be replaced by artificial intelligence (AI). The prediction of Singularity, a point in time when AI will be indistinguishable from human intelligence, is said to occur around 2040.

This unwarranted hype around AI is based on the misconception that we have developed a general or autonomous intelligence system – a computer system that mimics human intelligence, replicates human behavior in any context, and recognizes and resolves new problems for which it was not designed.

To the contrary, AI is an advanced analytics system that performs specific tasks with limited human involvement. It is the capability of a machine to imitate human intelligence and behavior. But, AI systems need human interfacing to develop and improve their ability to perform tasks.

At the core of AI is machine learning – the training of a computer analytics system by a human being. Machine learning is the ability to learn from data without being explicitly programmed. AI systems need humans to feed the data, to set the parameters, and to provide feedback. The AI system then applies this training to sort, identify, and analyze data and make accurate predictions based on historical patterns. It follows that software can improve over time. This is compelling, but it is not autonomous intelligence.

AI is only applied to defined tasks that are predictable, repeatable, and measurable. So, in a way, AI reduces risks by making more efficient, consistent, and interpretable decisions – but only for tasks that are predictable, repeatable, and measurable. AI systems may not grasp the personal, nuanced and complex nature of legal files the same way that humans can. Humans surpass machines in our ability to apply judgment. For example, while AI can use data to conduct legal research and predict the likelihood of success on primary legal issues, human lawyers are better suited to apply that information in deciding the overall strategy of the file, to negotiate or mediate various issues with multiple parties, and to assess different outcomes based on perceived value to a client. AI is not going to replace the lawyer-client relationship, nor will it replace the need for critical thinking and strategic decision making.

That said, legal technology will continue to be invaluable in liberating lawyers from mundane tasks so that we can continue to focus on complex projects and crafting creative solutions. Bionic lawyers are already leveraging legal technology to automate tedious tasks and streamline less complex matters. For example, legal technology expedites due diligence exercises that arise in connection with litigation or many transactions. It accelerates legal research, e-discovery, document assembly, document drafting, contract review, and jury selection. It also provides virtual access to files and a mobile platform to serve clients during times of urgency. Such efficiencies allow lawyers to lower costs and increase the volume of files they can undertake while allowing entrepreneurial firms to offer new and more innovative services. This, in turn, translates to increased access to justice for the average person.

While AI is already in use, the technology is in its infancy. Legal technology is currently a tool restricted to relatively mundane tasks and used to unbundle certain aspects of legal work. Technology will evolve, but it will not take legal work away from lawyers. There will probably be fewer traditional legal jobs, but new types of legal roles will be created. As the field of AI continues to grow, it will demand more highly skilled, tech-savvy problem-solvers.

So, AI will replace lawyers, but only for specific tasks. In fact, AI paired with humans is likely to surpass humans alone or AI alone. One day, “it may even be considered legal malpractice not to use AI," said Tom Girardi, the real-life inspiration for the lawyer in the movie Erin Brockovich.

About the author

Shiva Bakhtiary is a lawyer at Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt LLP.