• Ronald Yu

A Thought for the Legal Future

The increasing acceptance and adoption of artificial intelligence (AI) in the legal space is starting to cause significant shifts in legal practice and the legal profession.

A large percentage of in-house counsel believe the impact of automation will be “significant” or “very significant” while some law firms have started their own in-house big data analysis/AI teams. As noted in the Legalgeex.com article comparing AI legal systems and human lawyers, Altman Weil found that, of the 386 US firms participating in its 2017 Law Firms in Transition survey, half report they have created special projects and experiments to test innovative ideas or methods, and 49% indicate they are using technology to replace human resources with the aim of improving efficiencies.

As AI systems continue to improve, the temptation to replace legal functions currently performed by humans with AI - will increase and the supplanting of human legal staff has two potential implications.

In the short term, this could exacerbate problems of oversupply in the legal profession. Some have countered that this can be solved through the evolution of legal practice - notably with better lawyers who both handle increasingly complex matters and help to develop better legal AI.

But longer term, this raises a potential conundrum.

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell repeatedly mentions what has become known as the “10,000-hour rule”, which states that to become world-class in any field you must devote 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice”.

As AI systems continue to improve and take more legal-related functions away from human staff, will this result in fewer junior legal professionals being hired, meaning a smaller population of lower level staff and thus a smaller feeder pool for more senior positions? Will this result in fewer quality, experienced legal professionals in the future either because junior partners have left the legal profession altogether or because junior legal professionals were deprived of opportunities to gain important experience — ie, get their 10,000 hours?

In other words, if AI systems make more and more legal staff redundant, will that mean fewer great lawyers – both to practice law and help develop better legal AI - in the future?

Ronald Yu, Hong Kong

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