Will technology kill all the lawyers?

Will technology kill all the lawyers?

It is more than ten years since Richard Susskind completed his provocative work, The End of Lawyers? He was right to end the title with a question mark. The book was written in the immediate aftermath of the financial crisis, just as the first real impact of Artificial Intelligence (AI) was beginning to make itself felt on the document sorting and sifting that forms the mundane centrepiece of commercial legal practice.

Susskind’s body of work divides opinion: some regard him as a prescient and thoughtful commentator on the legal profession, predicting a world of online courts, AI-based global legal business, outsourcing, internet-based simulated practice, and new legal jobs. Others reject his ideas, saying that his past predictions have been wrong. Cast by his critics as a contemporary Cassandra, he utters prophecies that may eventually turn out to be true, but they choose not to believe him anyway.

The reality – a hybrid of diametrically opposing schools of thought – is more nuanced. A very talented writer and speaker, Susskind has made some remarkably accurate predictions although some events which he has anticipated have not materialised. At least not yet. The gift of being able to see into the future does not always come with an accurate clock calibrated to specify exactly when things will happen.

So has there been any noticeable reduction in the number of practising lawyers? Not exactly. In fact, quite the opposite. The intervening years have witnessed not only a sharp increase in the revenues and profits of commercial law firms, but also a healthy and sustained growth in the number of lawyers which they employ.

Figures published by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) reveal a steady inexorable rise. The figure for March 2009 is not published, but in March 2010, the population of practising solicitors was 115,200. In each subsequent year, save for a slight dip in 2013, the figures have increased in every March thereafter: 2011 – 119,641; 2012 – 127,884; 2013 – 125,192; 2014 – 128,425; 2015 – 131,518; 2016 – 134,099; 2017 – 137,623; 2018 -141,121; and 2019 – 144,845.

In summary, there has been a remarkably large increase of 25.7 per cent over nine years. As a result, the number of practising UK lawyers now comfortably surpasses the entire full-time trained combined strength (137,280) of Britain’s Army, Navy and Air Force.

Nor are things much different in the United States. The most recent data from the American Bar Association (ABA) on the US lawyer population reveals 1,338,678 licensed, active US attorneys. True, the latest figure for 2018 is only a modest 0.2 percent increase over the previous year – one of the smallest this century – but this still represents a 15.2 percent rise over the previous decade.

For those who prefer to take a long view, the ABA also publishes data going back to 1878 when there were a more modest 64,137 practising US lawyers. The most remarkable fact is that through each war and recession endured by the US the number has grown every single year, except one: in 1915, there was a decline of 0.1 per cent. But in the 104 years since then, there has been consistent growth in the number of practising lawyers. The total reached 250,000 in 1955, before passing the 500,000 mark in 1980, the 1,000,000 mark in 1999 and reaching 1.25m in 2013.

Far from seeing an end of lawyers, the growth in their collective ranks seems endless. Of course the themes in The End of Lawyers? were commonly echoed by many managing partners at the time Susskind wrote it: too many lawyers, too many law firms, the calamitous impact of new technology, the rise of offshoring and the move towards legal process outsourcing. The shape of law firms and the delivery of legal services were dramatically changing, they believed, with fewer lawyers being the inevitable corollary as the traditional law firm model underwent a wholesale transformation.   

‘Over the last 30 years,’ Susskind wrote, ‘my conviction about the need for change in the legal system has remained fairly steady. In contrast…the position of most legal practitioners has shifted.’ The themes of 2009 were valid, and are arguably just as valid in 2019. Yet despite of all the continued challenges faced by law firms, not least the sustained efforts of general counsel to negotiate lower fees in response to the pressure on costs, the army of lawyers under their command continues to grow.

And there have been very few casualties. Last year, according to SRA figures, only 29 of the 10,380 law firms operating in the UK closed due to financial difficulties – just 0.3% of total. This demonstrates an extraordinary resilience in the legal profession.

Without reciting the woeful data, the demise of different types of business over the past decade has been pronounced: pubs, major retailers on the high street, independent book shops, butchers and fishmongers – all have been in significant decline. The retail apocalypse, caused by a pincer movement of out-of-town shopping centres and online giants, has all but decimated many of Britain’s town centres.

For these and other businesses, the Internet has caused havoc. But not for law firms. In the great Darwinian struggle, they have not only adapted to survive the threat of technology, but they have thrived as a result of using what it offers them: quicker processing of information, instant communications, greater transparency with clients, and so on.

So will Susskind ultimately be proved right? Will legal advice become wholly or partially automated, enabling consumers to access legal services directly and in the process, bypass lawyers?

It is difficult and perhaps dangerous to predict. What is certain is that lawyers will continue to evolve as much as the nature and type of work on which they advise. The current fashion is to argue that AI will eventually put lawyers out of business. Certainly, law firms are already using AI to undertake due diligence, conduct research and process documents more efficiently. It is considerably cheaper and faster than the armies of paralegals and researchers they deploy in discovering, indexing, and processing information.

The impact of AI may therefore be transformational: eliminating the majority of paralegal and legal research positions within the next decade. The argument runs that lawyers will then face the axe in the following decade. But there is a counter argument: law firms that invest in the best AI systems will be able to generate the same or even higher levels of revenue while expanding their client base. It is only those firms that are too slow in embracing AI and automation which will suffer a competitive disadvantage.

Based on historic data and experience, conventional wisdom still suggests that being a lawyer is much more secure than being engaged in other types of business. Nevertheless, the AI revolution seems set to change the world of work profoundly. The Cassandras predict an Armageddon: according to the McKinsey Global Institute, around one-fifth of the global work force will be affected meaning that 800 million workers will lose their jobs by 2030 and be replaced by robotic automation. Meanwhile, optimists see almost as many new jobs being created.

On any view, it is highly likely that there will still be plenty of lawyers around in ten years’ time. Reports of their death are much exaggerated. At least for now.

Dominic Carman

Written by:

Dominic Carman, journalist, writer and legal commentator.
www.dominiccarman.com