The year 2017 was an impressive and banner year for legal tech. Discussions regarding the role of artificial intelligence and legal tech have increasingly become commonplace in legal conferences across Canada and the world. At the same time, we were witness to Saudi Arabia granting citizenship to a robot called Sophia — a robot that is able to learn and communicate at almost human levels. Will such robots one day complete law school and get called to the bar? AI has also become a critical tool with regard to ensuring access to justice. In 2017, a chatbot was used to assist “dreamers” in the U.S. to file Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals applications within strict timelines. This allowed millions of DACA applications to be submitted within a relatively short period of time.
It is not a big stretch to predict that 2018 will see a continuation and a speeding up of this incursion of AI and technology into the legal profession. Technological change within the legal profession itself is not new (remember typewriters and dictaphones?). What is new is the pace at which it is evolving. Moore’s Law on technology predicted that processor speeds, or the overall processing power of computers doubles every two years, resulting in exponential growth in their speed and capabilities. As the examples above show, we have already come a long way when we think of what AI and legal tech can do. Now imagine a doubling of this capability in 2018, then again in 2019 and 2020, etc.
What does this mean to us as lawyers? Soon, many if not most basic applications, forms and even contracts will likely be administered and completed through the assistance of AI. Long gone are the days when we asked ourselves whether technology and AI would change our profession. These days are here now. We are unlikely to move backwards and we must plan for the consequences of this. In some areas, the monopoly status that our profession has long preserved is coming to an end. We have in many ways seen this with regard to e-discovery and some basic compliance functions. This does not mean every lawyer needs to be able to code but rather lawyers must be continuously improving what services they provide to their clients and the tools they utilize to ensure effectiveness and efficiency in how they provide these services.
I expect that law societies will also increasingly require lawyers to build and maintain competencies in legal technology tools. It would not be much of a stretch for us to read into existing rules such a requirement. For example, article 3.1.1 of the Law Society of Ontario Rules of Professional Conduct reads:
"Competent lawyer" means a lawyer who has and applies relevant knowledge, skills and attributes in a manner appropriate to each matter undertaken on behalf of a client including
(e) performing all functions conscientiously, diligently, and in a timely and cost-effective manner;
(j) pursuing appropriate professional development to maintain and enhance legal knowledge and skills; and
(k) otherwise adapting to changing professional requirements, standards, techniques, and practices.
This is strong language. Such language can support the proposition that a competent lawyer should be utilizing, once available, legal technology in their practice. This is coming soon. Could 2018 be the year where we hear the first complaint against a lawyer for not using or being competent with the use of such tools?
There is still much to do, but law firms, courts and tribunals are increasingly embracing and experimenting with legal tech tools and technology generally to provide more effective and efficient services. Law schools are also using legal tech to ensure that graduates are comfortable with such tools. I expect 2018 will see an increased rate of adoption and use of such tools. In the long run, this will enhance access to justice and enhance the quality and affordability of legal services.
The fears that AI will soon make lawyers irrelevant and unemployed is exaggerated. The reason for this is, as noted by my esteemed colleague Ken Grady in Who Decides AI’s Role in Human Governance, that “in most areas of the law, computer and a human would be better than just a computer . . . because they complement each other.” The key to a successful legal career in 2018 and beyond will be to focus on the things that AI cannot do well, deciding which legal tech tools to use, managing interpersonal relations, bargaining, value-added strategic planning, risk management and marrying legal to business strategy. Lawyers must become acquainted and comfortable in using legal tech within their day-to-day functions. Not only will this help keep them employed and irreplaceable in 2018 and beyond, but also it is — or should be — a requirement for a competent lawyer.