Most blog posts on artificial intelligence and the law feature an image of some robot wearing a wig. That unfortunate caricature makes skeptical lawyers burst into jeers. They briefly imagine having some litter bin-like R2D2 as opposing counsel, chuckle, and proceed with the order of the day. A missed opportunity – and a most dangerous one at that.
Man versus machine
Because truth is technology already reviews documents, researches case law, categorizes unstructured legal information, negotiates deals, drafts contracts, visualizes transactions, resolves disputes and predicts litigation outcomes. Faster, cheaper and – more often than not – better than even the brightest of young lawyers could ever hope to. Artificial intelligence and newly qualified lawyers have more in common than meets the eye. Both learn the trade by analyzing data and processing feedback from senior experts. Few will deny that algorithms (are going to) do a superior job at the majority of tasks currently being handled by the youngest employees at large law firms.
Free ’em up!
But hey, happy thoughts! Pioneers in this field trying to market their products to the partners in those firms, make sure to stress how all this AI will free up lawyers to do the more interesting work – financially and intellectually rewarding stuff. Part of me desperately wants to believe that noble pursuit. Another part disqualifies it as a mere sales strategy in the first step towards true destruction of our industry. Either way, the bottom of the pyramid crumbles.
The code of life
It’s one thing to fight this ongoing automation of legal services out of pure economic self-interest. As has been noted eloquently and extensively, the law doesn’t exist to provide lawyers with a lucrative career. Bar regulation that stifles innovation for the commercial protection of its members won’t keep machines out of the profession for long. It’s another thing all together to academically challenge the assumption that artificial intelligence will by definition improve justice. For the law to evolve and – almost paradoxically – continue to be the code that regulates social life, we need critical thinking skills in all domains of the legal landscape.
Algorithms may define what the law is efficiently and accurately. But who will envision what it could or should be? Development of the law to create a more just society requires a deep understanding of the structures that lie beneath. What’s more, oral advocacy can only be truly inspiring and convincing if it stems from intuitive insights accumulated over years of experience. “Computer says no” may not be a very persuasive argument in court.
The dust of disruption
On the face of it, law students can celebrate dodging the grunt work much of their predecessors have come to hate so profoundly. At second glance, it’s not quite clear what type of work remains when the dust of disruption finally settles. Surely, the world will always need brilliant, devoted and creative lawyers. But how will all those freshly minted graduates grow and flourish among the greats of artificial intelligence? Is this next generation going to be proficient enough to improve upon that legal tech? And what kind of semi-finished academic product will even be in demand five or ten years from now?
Be the change
My point is this. We urgently need an overhaul of legal education – a revolution of sorts. Chanting substantive law is a requiem for the Luddite. That realization will only descend if law students face the ever-expanding dominion of natural language processing, machine learning and predictive coding head-on. Law students are linear thinkers extraordinaire (pondering cases of yore) and will consequently struggle to grasp the concept of exponential growth – underestimating the acceleration of software-driven innovation by magnitudes of order. Maybe law schools should start teaching Moore’s Law to begin with.
All about people
Not in order to retrain individuals displaying the first symptoms of professional deformation – turning every aspiring lawyer into a coder as we go along – but to make students appreciate the role humans play in shaping and delivering legal services. Because ours is a fundamentally interpersonal endeavor, unintentionally dehumanized in a quest for leverage and refinement. We have to reinvent university as a hatchery for philosophical and practical experiments that regenerate the education, practice and business of law before they go extinct – or worse still, live on lifeless.
Niek van de Pasch is an enthusiastic Dutch lawyer, specializing in commercial contracts and insolvency. He obtained both his Bachelor and Master of Laws degrees ‘cum laude’, while participating in an interdisciplinary honours programme and chairing a think tank for excellent students. As editor-in-chief and foundation president, he revived the faculty’s quarterly review. During his studies in law school, he clerked for a superior court and published a book on pension law. After being admitted to the bar, he was recognized as one of ’35 under 35′ (Dutch Lawyers’ Monthly) and ‘8 to follow’ (Wolters Kluwer Netherlands) for his views on legal innovation. A self-proclaimed legal nerd and trend watcher, Niek hopes to spread the joy of law through his numerous tweets and blog posts.