The Rise of Machines and the Future of Law Part II

Joy. Creativity. Coding. These are not the words we tend to use to describe the law and lawyers. But when speaking to Australian tax lawyer Adrian Cartland, these are the words that come up frequently. His view is that the practice of law – yes, even tax law – should be joyful and creative.

“Normally, when people think about tax, they think about doing their own tax returns. That is very boring. As a tax lawyer though, I get to do very creative things. I get to come up with a way of fixing something that’s broken – something that is in someone else’s ‘too hard’ basket. My whole job is about being creative. So I have always had that creative mindset.”

This creative mindset has led Adrian, owner and principal lawyer at Cartland Law, to develop Ailira, an artificially intelligent legal research system for tax law. He is a passionate advocate of the need for innovation in the law, and has argued previously that the profession is slow to innovate, in part because of the emphasis on achieving billable hours.

“Why didn’t Kodak come up with digital cameras? Because everything that made them successful about making print film worked against it. So assuming a firm is well run, they are going to pay a lot of attention to billable hours, recovery of debt, and that is what makes them successful…it’s not just lawyers, every industry would have that.”

Principle Lawyer and Migration Agent Chris Johnston agrees that the profession has been slow to take up new technologies. He uses multimedia extensively in his business, including developing his own YouTube videos to explain updates in legislation, a regular blog, and Skype appointments. “I think that Skype is an awesome technology. I’m an immigration lawyer, so it’s a fantastic tool for my business, and I am just astounded that Skype has not taken off in a big way. I would use that as an example – while that technology has been around for quite a long time now, and while occasionally you will see a law firm offering a Skype appointment, it’s certainly hasn’t been utilised to the extent that it could. It doesn’t even make any sense…I think there has been a reluctance to take on a lot of the technologies that are available.”

In our last Career Hack article, we considered the ways in which automation and AI systems are disrupting the legal profession. While some authors agreed that the law was ripe for a wholesale disruption, many felt that the opportunities for disruption in law were relatively limited compared to other professions. Adrian, however, disagrees. He argues that the ‘unstructured human interaction’ that Professors Remus and Levy believed were not easily subject to automation “can be automated (and I am presently doing so). It is just done piece by piece. I would categorise much of the personal interaction as done on ‘automatic thinking,’ which I think can almost all be automated.”

What about the unique human skills that cannot be automated in the legal profession? Adrian is quite certain about these: “Firstly, lateral thinking. Computers don’t even have a concept that they are a computer, so being able to think through various ‘outside of the box’ things that can’t be automated. Now unfortunately for lawyers creative thinking happens in some areas of the law, but not in others. Interpersonal skills, empathy and advocacy are also things that humans will always be better at than robots.”

“Law might be more resilient than you think,” says Chris Johnston, “I think law is harder to automate…so much of it is about assessing risk. It’s not just the risk of any circumstance, but it is about the risk of this person’s set of facts. If you can get the person to accurately put in enough data, you might have something. But assessing whether someone is going to be a good witness or not, are they truthful, will they be able to stand before a crowd – these are the sort of things that will influence that complex decision making about what to do with someone. And there is so much of that in so many areas of the law.”

Adrian has a unique view of the law and sees that there are many aspects of the law that are ripe for disruption through technology: “Law in a way is like coding, except what you have is you can create a program, but instead of running it, people just look at it and discuss how you would actually run it. So that is what a legal document is, that is what legal advice is. It’s essentially a program.”

His AI system Ailira is one such way that this automated interaction could occur. Ailira is a legal research system that enables a human to ask a question in natural language and receive an answer back. While I did not try it (I have a Law degree but did not take tax law), Adrian was happy to ask it a question for me. From a simple question such as ‘what is a trust’ to more a much more complex taxation question, Ailira was able to quickly respond with a correct answer.

Adrian is quick to point out however that AI systems are not designed to replace human lawyers: “No system can and could ever do the entire task. The thinking has to be there. But what I can do or my junior can do – when I’m thinking about a tax problem – is enter that into Ailira and find it much quicker. But still, there is a person involved. Sure, they found an answer five times faster, but there still needs to be thinking.”

Both Adrian and Chris agree that disruption in legal services, offered by both automation and services like RocketLawyer may not be to the benefit of lawyers. “I think where law might be more subject to disruption it will be through platforms that enable self-advocacy. It will be systems that enable people to do more of the work themselves. It’s enabling the client or the person who needs the legal services, combined with the platform, that might replace the lawyer,” says Chris.

Adrian agrees, “Robots increase the ability of humans to practice law. This doesn’t necessarily mean lawyers will benefit. Because lawyers are often slow adopters of technology the advances in AI will mean that other professionals will be able to encroach on the practice of law: accountants (from whom many lawyers depend on for client referrals), conveyancers, human resource managers, social workers, government agencies and more will be able to assist in the solving of legal problems more efficiently than lawyers”

Fast Facts

Which are the Future Work Skills that will be most critical to lawyers of the future?

  • New Media Literacy: being willing to take up, try, and create new media will give law firms an edge. Chris believes that a “greater level of competence in dealing with new ways of communicating will be necessary.” He also believes that this will occur “with a generational change” as younger lawyers with a high level of new media literacy enter into the profession “I think it will be a natural process over time.”
  • Transdisciplinarity: lawyers that are willing to learn across multiple disciplines will have the capacity to expand their service offering to clients. An example is Adrian’s AILRA system: his interest in coding and AI has enabled him to take the plunge into developing an innovative service offering for both clients and other lawyers
  • Social Intelligence: “They are going to need people skills and experience, judgement, interpersonal skills and in particular the ability to empathise,” says Chris, “it’s going to be people with the ability to listen and find out what a client needs, strong communication skills, a lot of those people skills, might actually be more valuable than ever in this context because some of the tasks which involve mechanical thinking will be removed.”
  • Novel and Adaptive Thinking: “Creative thinking, divergent thinking – you need those to differentiate yourself from machines.” says Adrian.
  • Cross Cultural Competency: In an increasingly multicultural and globalised society, lawyers will need to demonstrate their ability to engage with people from many cultures and backgrounds.

Image: Robots: the 500-year quest to make machines human (London Science Museum)