Will You Lose Your Job to Automation?

Will Robots Replace Lawyers?

I grew up on a farm. When I was young (eons ago), work on our farm required from six to ten laborers pretty much all year long. These days, our farm can produce more with two to three full-time workers. Automated combines, automated planters, and dramatic developments in the science and technology of farming have replaced all of those workers. And farmers are not alone. Workers have been losing their jobs to technology at least since the invention of the wheel.1 Technological improvements have replaced jobs for centuries—from the loss of jobs from weavers to mechanized looms, to the loss of steel mill jobs, to the loss of jobs in automobile industry—to robots. There is a “technical” term for this phenomenon. It is called “Technological Unemployment”.2  There is a raging debate in law-related tech-geek circles over whether Technological Unemployment will strike the practice of law.

        The Technological Unemployment debate in the legal services industry has two components. First, there is the debate regarding job loss as as result of technological innovation generally. The second component of the debate relates to job losses from technical innovation in the legal industry specifically.

Technological Unemployment in Society Generally

        Everyone on both sides of this debate agrees that technical innovation will create temporary job losses. The question is what the long-term effect of that technological innovation will have on employment. On the optimistic side, scholars argue that “Compensation Effects” will ultimately create as many jobs as were lost as a result of technological innovation. On the other side of the debate is the so-called “Luddite Fallacy,” which may not be a fallacy at all. The argument is that machines will first replace the “easy” jobs, but as machines become more and more sophisticated, they will be able to replace jobs that require higher and higher skill levels until they exceed the abilities of most humans. As a result, in the long run, there will actually be no jobs for most human beings. For a comparison of these two positions, see “A World without Work” in The Atlantic3 and “Humans are Underrated” in Fortune4.  

The So-Called Compensation Effects vs. the Luddite Fallacy in the Legal Industry

        One of my co-authors, Phillip Hampton, and I have been speaking on this topic for several years now. There is no doubt that technology has changed the legal profession and will change it in the future. The question for all of us is whether the changes will be so dramatic that technology will actually begin replacing lawyers themselves.  

As has been the case in many industries, technology has replaced lower-level jobs in the legal industry. Computers and word processing have reduced the number of support staff required per lawyer in a law firm. Email has reduced the need for runners and courier services, as well as persons who man our copy machines. Technological advancement has clearly changed the legal research experience for lawyers.  It certainly takes less time to research a legal issue, find applicable cases and Shepardize them than it did 25 years ago. Predictive coding and technology assisted review and other similar tools have reduced the need to have armies of young lawyers review large volumes of documents. Presently, the explosion in Artificial Intelligence has not resulted in very many job losses for lawyer, but that time could come. The Luddite proponents believe that the legal industry will experience significant job losses in the near future as a direct result of improvements in Artificial Intelligence.

The Luddite’s Argument

        For example, in a March 2015, article in the Wall Street Journal, the author states, “The legal profession has been one of the least aggressive adaptors of technology in the past, and in many ways the field resembles the law as practiced 100-years ago.”5 Phillip and I totally disagree with that statement.  One hundred years ago, almost all documents were drafted in pen and there were certainly many fewer lawyers than there are today. Davenport does acknowledge that the practice of law “is on the verge of a major transformation involving automation and use of technology to make intelligent legal decisions.”6 Davenport goes on to argue that the practice of law could be “decimated” if lawyers don’t embrace technology.7

        Davenport is right to a certain extent.  For example, “Ross” (built on IBM’s Watson) is now marketed as “Your Brand New Artificially Intelligent Lawyer.”8 Megafirm Baker & Hostetler has now “hired” Ross in the law firm’s bankruptcy practice.9 Using artificial intelligence, Ross supposedly improves on legal research by providing only the most relevant answers, thereby reducing the need to sift through large numbers of cases. It can also monitor litigation and provide notification on cases that affect your case, cases about your judge’s individual tendency, and so on.

        Daniel Katz, a professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law has developed “FantasySCOTUS”.10 The purpose of FantasySCOTUS is to ultimately create a computer algorithm which will accurately predict decisions of the United States Supreme Court. FantasySCOTUS is taking advantage of the knowledge of “several experts” at predicting Supreme Court opinions and developing an algorithm based on past precedent and the tendency of the present members of the Supreme Court and is rapidly becoming very accurate. FantasySCOTUS calls its algorithm “{Marshall}+” after Chief Justice John Marshall. {Marshall}+ can already predict every case decided since 1953 at 70% accuracy.11 Its founders strongly believe it will continue to improve its accuracy, a goal they are hoping to achieve in part by pitting the algorithm against humans in a fantasy Supreme Court league.12 

        Benjamin Liu, a law professor at University of Auckland, Australia, believes that artificial intelligence will replace lawyers in the near future in several areas. IBM Watson is going to take the Australian Bar Exam this year, and Watson will probably pass it.13 Professor Liu predicts that artificial intelligence can conduct the vast majority of transactional work, due diligence and takeover deals, and the drafting of routine legal documents.14 Robert Weber, IBM’s outgoing general counsel, predicts that Watson’s cognitive computing system will take over a large portion of the work done for IBM by external lawyers in the very near future.15

        Almost everyone agrees that artificial intelligence will bring access to justice for persons with limited means.  There will, of course, be a large initial investment in artificial intelligence for those that want to get in this market; but the results could be lucrative as  there will likely be a large number of consumers who would be interested in receiving legal advice (at a lower cost) from IBM Watson or another AI engine.  Consequently, legal advice will become increasingly available to persons with limited means.

        For example, 19-year old Joshua Browder, a freshman at Stanford University, launched what he calls the world’s first robot lawyer, DONOTPAY, in England.16 He was able to have thousands of tickets dismissed, saving drivers an estimated $4M-$5M.17 Billionaire Mark Cuban is interested in investing in DONOTPAY.18 Clearly, the view of tech entrepreneurs and investors is that Artificial Intelligence could have a transformational impact on the delivery of legal services, as transformational perhaps as digital media on the music, movie and publishing industries. The question is will this transformation bring about the near extinction of traditional jobs in the legal sector. Will traditional law firms go the way of Blockbuster and Tower Records storefronts?

The “Compensation Effects” Argument

        Now that you are sufficiently depressed, let’s look at the other side of the coin, the “compensation effects” side of the argument. There are several pundits who do not believe that robots will replace lawyers.19 Even these pundits generally agree that legal technologies have clearly cut into the attorney market and will continue to change it. However, these pundits believe that the compensation effects will save attorneys from massive job losses. They assert that this “automation anxiety” is misplaced.20   

        In a study prepared by McKinsey & Company in November 2015, the authors contend that adding technology to a legal workplace will transform rather than eliminate jobs.21 Yes, there will be “task automation,” but not “job automation.”  

        In a new study, “Can Robots be Lawyers?”, Dana Remus, a law professor at the University of North Carolina and Frank Levy, an MIT economist, studied the automation of lawyer work.22 Remus and Levy opined that even the most advanced artificial intelligence technology would only make a small dent in the number of actual hours that lawyers can bill.23 That is because, according to the study, the activity of practicing as a lawyer is very complicated. It involves a wide variety of functions from research and writing, to reading and analyzing documents, to meeting with clients and counseling with them to appearing in court, to persuading judges and juries.24 Reading documents, which computers can generally perform better than people, is only a small part of what lawyers do. Consequently, Remus and Levy concluded that only about 13% of all legal work would be lost due to automation.25 And that amount of work would be lost over a large number of years.

        In essence, those that believe that the compensation effects will save attorneys contend that smart lawyers will merely learn how to use existing technology to make them better lawyers and to expand and augment the amount of work they can get done.

        Geoff Colvin, in a well-written and well-researched article in Fortune magazine, “Humans are Underrated,” points out why “humans will remain in charge.”26 Colvin argues that “humans rather than computers will have to solve some problems for purely practical reasons.”27 He argues that it is the nature of humans to change our conception of what problems are and what our goals are. People have to work out problems together and in groups. And since groups can solve problems far better than any individual can, we will always require that humans work together to set selective goals and solve problems.

        In addition, “deeply human abilities such as empathy, social sensitivity, storytelling, collaborating, and building relationships can never be resolved by machines.”28 He argues that we will always want to follow human leaders and not a computer. We want our doctor or our lawyer to explain their opinions to us, even if those opinions have been augmented or even prepared by computers. That is why Oracle vice-president, Meg Bear, has stated, “Empathy is the critical 21st Century skill.”29 

Our Opinion

        We feel like telling the Luddite’s and Compensation Effect proponents, “Stop, you are both right.” We certainly believe that technology will change legal profession; and, yes, there will be some functions that lawyers perform today that will become completely automated. We do not believe, however, that it will completely do away with attorneys, and we do not believe that technology can alone solve all of our problems as is suggested by Donald (of Steely Dan) in “What a Beautiful World”:

A just machine to make big decisions / Programmed by fellows with compassion and vision /

We’ll be clean when their work is done / We’ll be eternally free, yes, and eternally young.30

        That is just not going to happen. In fact, perhaps technology will make attorneys even better at doing what humans do best—relating to other humans. With the robotic, tedious, and boring functions of the legal profession being taken over by computers, attorneys can concentrate on honing the skills that make them better able to negotiate, persuade, and mediate.

        Having machines to do everything for us is not our idea of Nirvana. As pointed out in The Atlantic, “the prospect of a no-work future seems hopeless.”31 We would be lost without work, and we would be lost without human interaction. It is our belief that this innate desire for human social interaction is an underlying cause for the recent move by major internet-based retailers such as Amazon to begin opening traditional brick and mortar locations.32 While online shopping is quick, easy, and convenient, for many it is a poor substitute for a trip to the mall with friends, a movie at the theater, and a cup of coffee in a crowded Starbucks. Until your computer can cry with you over a lost love, share your joy over a job promotion, or even help you sort through the pros and cons of a critical decision, humanity will remain distinct and superior to machines. And to the extent that consumers still seek a touch of humanity in their search for a legal advocate, the job of being an attorney will be a uniquely human one.

        The future of the practice of law will be, in our opinion, for those attorneys who can embrace and accept technology. The successful lawyers of the future (and those who have clients and work) will be attorneys who can use technology to their advantage. They will use technology to free them from tedious review tasks etc., and free them up to think, to meet with clients, to be empathetic—to be human. Smart and successful lawyers will learn what technology can do for them, and they will use it to make them better lawyers and to augment their work and make it better.


1 Gregory R. Woirol, The Technological Unemployment and Structural Unemployment Debate 77-90 (1996).

2 Technological Unemployment, Wikipedia (last modified Sept. 19, 2016), En.Wikipedia.org/wiki/Technological_unemployment.

3 Derek Thompson, A World Without Work, The Atlantic (July/Aug. 2015), TheAtlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/07/world-without-work/395294.

4 Geoff Colvin, Humans are Underrated, Fortune (July 23, 2015), Fortune.com/2015/07/23/humans-are-underrated.

5 Thomas H. Davenport, Let’s Automate All the Lawyers?, Wall St. J. (Mar. 25, 2015), Blogs.WSJ.com/cio/2015/03/25/lets-automate-all-the-lawyers.

6 Id.

7 Id.

8 See Ross, RossIntelligence.com.

9 Michael Addady, Meet Ross, the World’s First Robot Lawyer, Fortune (May 12, 2016), Fortune.com/2016/05/12/robot-lawyer.

10 About FantasySCOTUS, FantasySCOTUS, fantasyscotus.lexpredict.com/about.

11 Daniel Martin Katz, Michael James Bommarito II, & Josh Blackman, Predicting the Behavior of the Supreme Court of the United States: A General Approach, at 2 (rev. July 27, 2014) available at SSRN.com/abstract=2463244.

12 Dylan Matthews, This Computer Program Can Predict 7 out of 10 Supreme Court Decisions, Vox (Aug. 4, 2014), Vox.com/2014/8/4/5967147/how-a-computer-model-got-to-predict-70-of-supreme-court-decisions#story.

13 Miklos Bolza, Robots Replacing Lawyers a “Near Certainty”, Australian Law. (Feb. 22, 2016), AustralianLawyer.com.au/news/robots-replacing-lawyers-a-near-certainty-212164.aspx.


14 University of Auckland: Robots as Judge, Jury, and Lawyer, New Zealand Herald (Nov. 12, 2015), NZHerald.co.nz/university-of-auckland/news/article.cfm?c_id=1503679&objectid=11543582.

15 Davenport, supra note 5.

16 This Robot Lawyer Could Help You Get Your Parking Ticket Dismissed, CBS News (July 21, 2016), CBSNews.com/news/donotpay-bot-lawyer-helps-dismiss-parking-tickets-joshua-browder.

17 Id.

18 Id.

19 See Steve Ankenbrandt, No, Robots Won’t Replace Lawyers, Make It Like You Like It (Mar. 25, 2016), milyli.com/automation-lawyers-redaction-process; John Markoff, The End of Lawyers? Not So Fast., N.Y. Times (Jan. 4, 2016), Bits.Blogs.NYTimes.com/2016/01/04/the-end-of-work-not-so-fast.

21 Michael Chui, James Manyika, & Mehdi Miremadi, Four Fundamentals of Workplace Automation, McKinsey Q. (Nov. 2015), McKinsey.com/business-functions/business-technology/our-insights/four-fundamentals-of-workplace-automation.

22 Dana Remus & Frank Levy, Can Robots Be Lawyers?: Computers, Lawyers, and the Practice of Law, (Dec. 30, 2015), available at Papers.SSRN.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2701092.

23 Id. at 68 (noting that the tasks capable of automation “represent a relatively modest percentage of lawyers’ billable hours”).

24 Id. at 13-33 (summarizing six different lawyering tasks).

25 Id. at 46.

26 Geoff Colvin, Humans are Underrated, Fortune (July 23, 2015), Fortune.com/2015/07/23/humans-are-underrated.

27 Id.

28 Id.

29 Id.

30 Donald Fagen, I.G.Y. (What a Beautiful World) (Warner 1982).

31 Derek Thompson, A World Without Work, The Atlantic (July/Aug. 2015), TheAtlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/07/world-without-work/395294.

32 Greg Bensinger, Amazon Plans Hundred of Brick-and-Mortar Bookstores, Mall CEO says, Wall St. J. (Feb. 2, 2016), WSJ.com/articles/amazon-plans-hundreds-of-brick-and-mortar-bookstores-mall-ceo-says-1454449475.

 BILL RAMSEY is an attorney at Neal & Harwell, PLC. His practice focuses primarily on complex civil and criminal litigation.

PHILLIP HAMPTON is the CEO at LOGICFORCE, where he specializes in strategic vision casting. 

 ERIK LYBECK is an associate at Neal & Harwell. He assists clients with commercial and criminal