Lawyering in the age of algorithms
In a July 2017 speech at the Future Lawyering Conference, then Senior Minister of State for Law and Finance Indranee Rajah deftly captured the prevailing mood of many in the legal industry of “being besieged” in the face of a “technology explosion” that’s “not stopping and (where) the pace of technology-driven change is accelerating.” But is the future for lawyers necessarily as dire as naysayers and some futurists predict?
In a July 2017 speech at the Future Lawyering Conference, then Senior Minister of State for Law and Finance Indranee Rajah deftly captured the prevailing mood of many in the legal industry of “being besieged” in the face of a “technology explosion” that’s “not stopping and (where) the pace of technology-driven change is accelerating.”
Her choice of referencing the sci-fi cult classic movie The Terminator, where mankind fights for survival against the relentless onslaught of self-aware machines, elicited laughs from the audience; although I suspect, given the context of the conference, some of the laughter might have been more than a little uncomfortable.
But is the future for lawyers necessarily as dire as naysayers and some futurists predict?
Proponents of the lawyer-pocalypse frequently roll out a combination or all of the following examples: a bank acquiring software to do in seconds what it took 360,000 hours for its legal teams to do previously; the success of a chatbot billed as the “world’s first robot lawyer” that has successfully appealed thousands of parking tickets; and citing any one of the many start-ups promising to reduce or eliminate the role that lawyers currently play in the economy.
The reality, however, may be a lot less sensational.
While machines and algorithms are indeed coming for tasks currently being performed by lawyers, these tasks tend to be labour-intensive and/or low-value and/or process driven.
This is a good thing and should be encouraged, because it will make parts of the process of lawyering much more efficient.
It would allow lawyers to concentrate on higher-order tasks such as crafting legal strategies, interpreting and applying the relevant parts of the law to complex situations and perhaps most importantly, maintaining the human connection for a profession which is critically about relationships.
Consequently, the business of lawyering will expand to include other classes of knowledge workers, and trend towards a model not unlike that of the medical industry, where the needs of patients (clients) are met by a process-driven model.
While doctors are a central part of this model, they are not the exclusive providers of healthcare services, as they are complemented by a comprehensive eco-system of allied healthcare professionals.
Similarly, rather than being replaced, lawyers will be complemented and augmented by increasingly sophisticated algorithms with predictive and analytical abilities.
A legal work team in the near future will evolve beyond the current pyramid-shaped, partner-led and associate-supported static hierarchy, to a task-configured cross-functional team.
This will consist of subject matter experts and para-professionals such as data scientists, analysts, IT experts and programmers and client care managers -- all built upon a robust and responsive artificial intelligence system that is able to make sense of large sets of data, research and precedents.
The stark corollary to this more efficient future is that lawyers whose business is focused on form filling, information and document collation, the performance of repeated or templated tasks, the provision of baseline advice, and/or who do not leverage on technology, will face the most risk from machines.
The value of a lawyer’s advice is only as good as his/her ability to access, navigate and assess specialised knowledge and data, but if a potential client could independently access and/or make sense of such knowledge (including, for instance, having their queries answered by chatbots), then there is little reason for a tech-savvy client to pay for such basic advice when the information is freely available.
This is especially so as the government and regulatory authorities continue to shift more services online and introduce more self-help avenues and tools, thus altering the landscape of the legal industry.
The Ministry of Manpower already has a Self-Assessment Tool that assesses if a person is likely to qualify for a work pass; and while it does not guarantee the actual outcome of the application, it does provide a baseline indication of whether or not an applicant will be successful.
Such a service ostensibly reduces the scope of advice that an employment lawyer might offer.
However, he will still be of value to his client doing the more complex work of crafting and submitting an appeal as well as navigating interactions with the authorities should the client’s application be rejected, or should the client be investigated by the regulators in a complaint scenario.
It would thus not be too much of a stretch to envisage a future where potential litigants in certain types of disputes are able to submit their facts or narratives through a self-evaluation portal and to be provided with a neutral, non-binding and confidential indication of how cases similar to theirs have been dealt with by the Courts, before deciding if it would be economically efficient to litigate their dispute.
The new economy will compel the legal industry to restructure itself and reconsider how legal products and services are currently marketed and delivered.
As business and the economy becomes ever more complex, the information and data available for lawyers to consider in assisting clients to make strategic decisions will be so vast that unless technology and workflows are correctly harnessed to make sense of it, the information would be useless and impossible to interpret manually.
Nonetheless, despite the advances of AI and algorithms, it is unlikely that the role of the specialist lawyer will be totally challenged.
This is because even after the AI sorts through the vast data sets and provides decision-making guidelines and suggestions, the final call will have to come from the human in the loop.
The complexity of the operating environment, together with the risks involved, demands that a human being is ultimately held accountable for a decision.
Finally, it must be noted that law does not operate in a cold statistical vacuum, but is an expression of human aspiration.
So long as there are people willing to push the boundaries of rules, possibilities and limits, lawyers will always have a fundamental role in society and the economy.
Ms Indranee Rajah opened her message to lawyers with a quote from 1984’s The Terminator, to warn lawyers about the coming changes.
Let me end this piece with a hopefully more upbeat quote from 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgement Day: “The future is not set. There is no fate but what we make for ourselves.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Jonathan Yuen is an Equity Partner at Rajah & Tann. This is adapted from a longer piece that first appeared in The Birthday Book 2018: The Roads We Take, a collection of 53 essays by a range of Singaporeans and Singapore residents reflecting on our individual and collective journeys as the Republic turns 53. TODAY will be carrying other essays from the book in the coming weeks.