Lawyers have been described as the canaries in the coal mine in the face of a wave of automation now beginning to displace highly skilled white-collar workers.
In recent years, the increasing reliance on so-called “e-discovery” software in lawsuits raised the specter that $35-an-hour paralegals as well as $400-an-hour lawyers would fall victim to programs that could read and analyze legal documents more quickly and accurately than humans.
The fate of lawyers has been seen as a harbinger of a broader wave of worker displacement. The rapid commercialization of a new generation of artificial intelligence-derived technologies has led to concerns that technological disruption will extend from white- and blue-collar occupations of largely routine work that can be automated, into highly-paid professions like legal workers and doctors.
That has led to a new round of automation anxiety. Two Massachusetts Institute of Technology economists, Eric Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, and a Silicon Valley software entrepreneur, Martin Ford, have written several books among them — including “Race Against the Machine,” “The Second Machine Age,” “The Lights in the Tunnel” and “Rise of the Robots,” warning that rapid technological advances might wreak havoc with the economy.
Despite the fears of some of a “jobs-pocalypse,” the economy has stubbornly refused to cooperate with the doomsayers. Last month, there were 149 million people employed in the United States, the most in history. And in recent months a growing array of new studies have indicated that the relationship between technological advances and job displacement is more complex and nuanced than pessimists have suggested.
In November, for example, a study prepared by McKinsey & Company suggested that adding technology to the workplace is more likely to transform, rather than eliminate, jobs. This echoed a growing consensus that it is important to distinguish “task” automation from “job” automation.
The McKinsey study found that less than 5 percent of jobs can be completely automated based on existing technologies within the next three to five years. Even more striking is a similar study by James Bessen, a Boston University School of Law researcher, who found a positive relationship between the degree of computerization in a particular job category and employment growth.
Those studies support another recent paper written by David Autor, an M.I.T. labor economist known for his research indicating that middle-income, mid-skilled jobs in the United States have undergone a significant decline in recent years.
But writing in the Journal of Economic Perspectives this summer, Mr. Autor posed the question: “Why are there still so many jobs?” He pointed out that automation just as frequently complements as replaces labor in the workplace. He predicted that in the future, while A.I. technologies would continue to replace routinized jobs, they would also increase the number of workers whose jobs require problem-solving, flexibility and creativity.
Earlier, Dr. Autor had written about what he described as the limits of automation technologies. The challenge for A.I. designers, he wrote, was embedded in the observation made by the pre-modern-computing era philosopher Michael Polanyi: “We can know more than we can tell …” In other words, there are many human activities that cannot be formally described. It is those aspects of human behavior that computers cannot be programmed to simulate.
That view is supported by a new study, “Can Robots Be Lawyers?”, a draft of which was posted last week on the Social Science Research Network by Dana Remus, a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law, and Frank S. Levy, an M.I.T. labor economist. In the study, they explored which aspects of a lawyer’s job could be automated.
The research suggested that, for now, even the most advanced A.I. technology would at best make only modest inroads into the legal profession. Based on their analysis of actual billed hours, the researchers examined the work that lawyers do in broad general categories. They then analyzed how much of each category might be displaced by existing A.I. and automation technologies.
As it turns out, being a lawyer involves performing a range of tasks, from reading and analyzing documents, to counseling, appearing in court and persuading juries. Indeed, reading documents accounts for a relatively modest portion of a lawyer’s activities.
The researchers noted that many of the tasks that lawyers perform fall well within what Polanyi defined as human behavior that cannot be easily codified. “When a task is less structured, as many tasks are,” the researchers wrote, “it will often be impossible to anticipate all possible contingencies.”
And current e-discovery software programs still require significant involvement on the part of human lawyers, they wrote.
In an analysis of actual legal work practices from billing invoice data, the researchers estimated that about 13 percent of all legal work might ultimately fall prey to automation. If that amount of work disappeared in a single year, it would be devastating, of course. But implemented over many years, this amount of technological change would be less noticeable, they said.
They added that even in the case of start-ups like LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer, two sites that can aid in the preparation of legal documents, the impact of automation would more likely be in expanding into underserved markets rather than in displacing existing legal services.
Artificial intelligence technologies will continue to wend their way into the workplace, but they are more likely to change work, rather than end it. “Even where automation has made significant progress, its impact has been far less than the headlines would have us believe,” the authors of “Can Robots Be Lawyers?” wrote