Robot Attorneys: Will Machine Intelligence Replace Lawyers?

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on May 28, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The legal industry has seen plenty of technologically induced changes over the past decade, as e-discovery, online marketing and advances in legal research reshape the way lawyers work. As part of a symposium on the "legal profession's monopoly" last year, legal scholars argued that "machine intelligence" is on the verge of further revolutionizing the legal industry. The changes could be similar to the undoing of print journalism following the rise of Internet media.

Are such legal futurists just applying the typical clichés about "disruption" and the need to "adapt or die" applied to the legal industry? Absolutely. But there could be more to it than just that.

In the eyes of legal futurists, we're already in the midst of a "great disruption." Some technological developments have certainly changed, but not radically altered legal practice. Think legal research or discovery. You no longer flip through physical reporters or review discovery documents by hand. In these cases, the work remains largely the same. A lawyer still needs to review case law or dig through discovery, if only on a computer. What, though, if Westlaw suddenly just had your relevant cases or discovery software immediately found the smoking gun? Automation could someday remove much of the work lawyers do.

According to legal scholars John McGinnis and Russell Pearce, machine intelligence is "on the cusp of substitution for other legal tasks -- from the generation of legal documents to predicting outcomes in litigation." The new automation, they argue, will focus on routine tasks, perhaps with lawyer oversight. Even if unauthorized practice laws do not change, those laws will not stem "the emergence of widespread machine lawyering," the professors say. The areas most likely to see flesh replaced by silicon include:

  • discovery
  • legal research
  • document generation
  • brief and memo writing
  • predicting trial outcomes

So, basically all the tasks that make practicing law fun.

There's Plenty of Work Machines Can't Do

There's room for some healthy skepticism. Imagine your doctor was replaced by a WebMD app. Suddenly, every ache and pain is everything from Lyme disease to shingles. Clearly, we're not there yet; computers have just barely begun to replicate complex human activities. Robot journalists, for example, can now write a passable news item, sometimes. But for programs seeking to replace skilled work, subtext, nuance and refined decision making aren't their strong points. Would any sane client, let alone a lawyer, want to put a computer in charge of their voir dire? No way, Dave.

Even the biggest cyborg lawyer fans acknowledge that there are plenty of tasks automation won't be able to replicate. Further, many areas of law are simply too complex to be managed by an algorithm. But, for lawyers whose practice is largely managing routine, boilerplate matters -- watch out. The machines are on the rise.

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