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Lawyers, Tech May Change Your Job, but It Probably Won't End It

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on July 12, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

You don't have to look far to find news about bots, artificial intelligence, and machine learning moving into the legal sphere -- and potentially displacing flesh-based attorneys. There are online chatbots handling traffic disputes, machine learning programs doing associate-style legal research, and, for the support staff out there, artificial intelligence secretaries who can take care of attorney scheduling.

But there's no need to burn your J.D. and take up coding just yet. Technology will absolutely change the legal industry, but it probably won't eliminate too many legal jobs.

Tech as Tool, Not Competition

Attorneys should view technology as tools to increase efficiency and lower cost, not as competition that will put them out of a job, according to Jim Gill, of the eDiscovery company Exterro. In a recent blog post, which comes to us via Legaltech News, Gill argues that technology, particularly eDiscovery technology, "can never replace lawyers, only help them," by making cases easier to evaluate and production easier to handle.

Gill also cites recent research by Dana Remus and Frank Levy, a law professor at the University of North Carolina and an economist at MIT, respectively. That study concludes that "predictions of imminent and widespread displacement of lawyers are premature," a determination backed up by the continued growth in the legal market. More than 43,000 new attorney jobs are expected to be created between 2014 and 2024, Legaltech News reports.

Of Course, Not Everyone Survives Change

Gill analogizes legal technology to the arrival of John Deere's steel plow in 1837:

I can imagine the naysayers back then, saying that those steel plows would bring about "the end of farmers," when in fact, Deere's plow expanded agriculture into areas where the soil was difficult to break with conventional wooden or iron plows. The transformation of the American Great Plains from a grassy desert to a vast crop garden was due to technological change.

The same holds true with the automation of the legal profession.

It's a telling comparison, because while technology did greatly improve farming, it also vastly reduced the amount of farmers. The percentage of American workers employed on farms dropped from over 60 percent in 1840 to 40 percent in 1900 and under 10 percent by the 1960's, in part because of advancements in agricultural technology, driven by John Deere as well as Dow Chemical. (Not to mention continued industrialization and, of course, emancipation. A lot of farm workers when the steel plow was introduced were slaves, after all.)

Which is to say that, while technological innovations may benefit the industry as a whole, it's also inevitable that some legal professionals will be left behind. Firms no longer employ armies of scriveners to copy their files, for example, and they may not have as many lawyers doing lower-level legal tasks in the future, once technology gets smart enough to take over.

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