Video: Will Artificial Intelligence Have a Radical Impact on the Legal Profession?

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Artificial intelligence (AI) has been a hot phrase for lawyers — both in-house and in private practice — for some years. But will it fundamentally transform the day-to-day work that lawyers do? As part of Thomson Reuters’ ongoing Legal Debate Series in the UK, domain experts from around the legal industry set out to test the hype by arguing: “Artificial Intelligence (AI) will fail to have a radical impact on the legal profession.”

In front of a packed house in Thomson Reuters Canary Wharf auditorium in London, Reuters Editor-At-Large Axel Threlfall chaired the debate and set the scene by offering some potential radical impacts of AI, including the elimination of thousands of junior and paralegal jobs and the use of AI to offer client-facing front-end services. Might chatbots soon provide low-cost legal advice? Could the advent of emotionally intelligent AI render the very role of a lawyer redundant?

The first round of audience polling revealed that just 32% agreed that AI would fail to have a radical impact on the legal profession. A full 44% disagreed that there would be no impact, leaving 24% undecided.

Mark Edwards, vice president at Rocket Lawyer, took to the podium first, arguing that AI would fail to have the expected impact in law. His company provides online legal services to small business and consumers. He was clear that “legal services are transforming,” and will be “significantly different in 10 years’ time.” However, he also argued that AI itself wouldn’t radically impact the profession anytime soon — certainly not within the next 25 or 30 years. He cited a recent study that suggested less than 30% of a lawyer’s daily tasks could be automated. Although Moore’s law dictated that machines double in processing power every 18 months, this only guaranteed that they’d be faster, not smarter. Technology and other drivers would help the legal industry to transform significantly, but the impact of AI on this wouldn’t be radical.

AI systems “never get tired, never sleep, and they continue to improve.”

Dr. Peter Waggett, formerly a rocket scientist and now Emerging Technology Program Leader at IBM Watson, argued that AI would have tremendous impact on the legal profession. He urged attendees to consider the positive impact the development of AI could have on skills shortages in areas like medicine and the law. AI systems “never get tired, never sleep, and they continue to improve.” He drew parallels between the signals of impending transformation in the rocket science industry and the current climate of the legal industry. He also pointed out the thorny issue of liability: when AI takes control of systems, like driverless cars, who is liable when things go wrong?

The audience was invited to put their questions to the panel and raised many insightful points, such as the relationship between AI and big data; and the question of how high up the value chain AI would be allowed to operate in a law firm. One audience member asked what young lawyers should start thinking about as they join an AI-influenced workforce — do they all need to learn to code?

You can also watch the debate in full below:

This post was written by Tom Bangay, content manager with Thomson Reuters Thought Leadership team in the UK.

You can read this post in its entirety on Thomson Reuters’ Legal Current.