Modern technology has revolutionised society and one of the most significant developments has been the growth in artificial intelligence (AI). AI is any kind of machine or program with the capability of imitating human behaviour i.e. voice recognition or decision making. AI has filtered into everyday life, we now have companions on our smartphones such as Apple’s “Siri” which is capable of listening and intelligently responding to anything we say. These advancements have made everyday life easier in many regards and the legal profession has not been excluded from the benefits of these changes. AI has allowed for the automation of mundane data-heavy tasks, which are abundant in the legal sector. The introduction of software that can accurately review and verify contracts is beginning to change the nature of work carried out by legal professionals. Blockchain is also a form of technology which has grown massively in recent years and is becoming increasingly integral across the financial services industry. With all this new technology being introduced, the legal sector is increasingly asking, “will robots remove the need for lawyers?” This article explores some of the new technology making its way into the legal market and looks at some of the opportunities and issues arising out of them.
One of the key technologies on the rise in the legal sector is AI contract review software. New software can review contracts at super human speed and a number of law firms have already adopted AI technology. Linklaters for example, have recently launched software designed to sift through different regulatory registers to check client names for banks. The technology is capable of sending requests and enquiries to Companies House to check if the address in a document matches the company number. It can then is outdated, the system can flag it for review 1. Reed Smith has also recently tested a cognitive computer platform designed to interpret and extract important provisions from leases. It was then able to highlight higher-risk leases requiring additional examination 2. The sophistication of these technologies has reached new heights and they appear revolutionise the nature of work carried about by legal professionals. This is likely to reduce the amount of this kind of ground work usually reserved for junior lawyers.
Consequently, the rise of this AI software in particular may be to the detriment of law firms in the long term, in the absence of major reforms. The time-consuming activities such as contract reviewing make up a sizeable portion of law firms billable hours. If all of these activities are carried out by these AI systems then under the current models it would not count towards billable hours and could lead to significant drops in revenue. The widespread introduction of AI technologies may require an overhaul of the current business model adopted by law firms.
Another new technology being introduced into the legal field is Blockchain. Blockchain is best described as a public ledger of transactions on a peer to peer network. When a transaction is made the information then appears on the ledger and no third party needs to facilitate the transaction. It is best known for being the system that the crypto-currency Bitcoin operates on (See previous article) but its uses are more far-reaching than this. This system can be utilized in the legal sector in a number of ways. Blockchain can primarily be used in areas such as land registration and intellectual property. In land registration it would be easily to verify who owns what, with ownership of land transferring seamlessly across the network. With intellectual property, trademarks and copyrights could be registered with ease and this would create indisputable database of information. It is unlikely however, that the use of Blockchain in the style mentioned above will become ubiquitous in the legal profession anytime soon. For Blockchain to operate effectively in this manner there would need be a centralised ledger and the legal world is currently too fragmented for this.
Blockchain however, is more likely to be effective when combined with smart contracts. This is undoubtedly one of the key developments we are likely to see in the future. A smart contract is a piece of computer code that can automatically monitor, execute, and enforce a deal. They can operate on Blockchain and in simple terms they function so that “if action A occurs then action B is initiated”. This technological concept is by no means new or revolutionary but it has been continually developed to the stage where it is now commercially viable to use in business contracts and deals. Smart contracts have already been put into practice and are likely to become more common in coming years. Barclays recently trialed an interest rate swap using smart contracts. An interest rate swap is a form of derivative where parties create a contract to artificially swap their interest rate payment obligations. Parties swap rates depending on whether a fixed or floating (changing) interesting rate is more beneficial for them. At Barclays case coders and were able to create a self-executing smart contract through setting three factors, (amount of money, interest rate and currency) where changes in these factors would then execute the contract. The use of these smart contracts could be very useful in the legal profession as they are self-executing so are difficult to impede and can create a seamless contract execution process, mitigating issues of trust and uncertainty.
The terms of the smart contracts however, will still need significant human input. The contracts themselves will still need to be negotiated and drafted by lawyers and lawyers will need to spot nuances in contracts. Smart contracts unlike contract review technology, are highly unlikely to substantially diminish the amount of work needed but rather just increase the efficiency of contract execution. Smart contracts are still in their relative infancy, so it may be sometime before they are widely adopted by law firms but it is certainly on the horizon.
In summary, the robots are not taking over, at least for now. There is likely to be a gradual shift in the nature of the work that lawyers carry out but foreseeable technological advancement is not going to substantially reduce the work available for lawyers. A proportion of the more routinised mundane activities which are traditionally laden upon trainee solicitors and paralegals are soon likely to be carried out by machines. This could potentially reduce demand for paralegals and trainees but this shift is unlikely to happen anytime soon. In future, the knowledge of how to code and operate these new forms of technology may become a necessity for all lawyers. In mean time however, technology such as Blockchain and AI are likely to simplify lawyers’ jobs and make lawyers more efficient, not make them redundant.