Oxford lawyers, quit your degrees. Now.

Michael Shao argues that software systems, developments in machine learning, and artificial intelligence will soon render lawyers obsolete

A judge's gavel
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Computers have, and continue to, become exponentially better at understanding the world. Last year, a computer beat the best Go player in the world, ten years earlier than expected. The field of machine learning and artificial intelligence development continues to grow, especially in the United States. So how does this apply to law? In large lawsuits, the discovery process involves, at times, literally millions of documents. Reviewing such materials was, traditionally, a task for the lower-level lawyers or paralegals to complete. But now, new software systems can do the job with increasingly higher levels of accuracy than their human counterparts.

Troubles facing the field of law are not entirely limited to future concerns. They are already occurring in the present. In the United States, young lawyers already face mounting difficulties with employment. Because of IBM Watson, you can get legal advice, regarding basic inquiries, within seconds, with 90 per cent accuracy compared with 70 per cent accuracy when done by human paralegals. In the United States, H&R Block also runs a novel but increasingly popular service where Watson can help, if not nearly complete in totality, with your taxes, and on a broader scale with corporate and tax law. In the near future (next few years), a legally-trained Watson will be able to construct a system with a vast store of cases and precedent and create drafts of briefs: research and writing work that generally has been handled by associates in law firms.

Even quantitative legal prediction, a difficult process that typically requires a high level of personal, human competency on the part of the lawyer, has seen AI do better. Researchers at Michigan State University and South Texas College of Law constructed a statistical model that was able to predict the outcomes of 71 per cent of United States Supreme Court cases. Forget about Neil Gorsuch.

History has always faced the disappearance of certain industries, in both realms of services and manufacturing. In 1998, Kodak had 170,000 employees and sold 85 per cent of all photo paper worldwide. Within just a few years, their business model disappeared and they filed for bankruptcy. I can only postulate this question to those who are much older than me, but did you think in the year 1998 that you would never take pictures on paper film again? Part of this willful cognitive denial is because of the non-linear fashion in which technology progresses. Digital cameras were invented in 1975, over two decades before Kodak’s collapse.

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The first ones only had 10,000 pixels, but followed Moore’s law. So as with all exponentially developing technologies, it was a disappointment for a long time, before it became vastly superior and flowed product-wise into the mainstream. The same phenomenon is expected when it comes to artificial intelligence, health, autonomous and electric cars, education, and 3D printing.

But I don’t intend to cause fear, and most importantly, misinterpretation. The development of technology is always a good thing, because technology means complementary, not substitution. Within the interaction of man and all things machine, there is no trade off to the machine: we don’t trade with AI any less than we trade with lamps and sofas. Computers are tools, not rivals. Even in the countless times throughout history in which various professions were replaced by technology, the wealth created by these advances in technology, as technology always does, subsequently opened up entirely new sectors. Just as Apple drove dozens of other phone manufacturers to bankruptcy or to complete overhaul, their developments in smartphone technology have given rise to a thriving market of hundreds of thousands of mobile app developers.

That being said, you do not want to be caught on the wrong side of history. In this respect, it is important to think in the long term, to consider the state of the world on a greater scale. In today’s world, you will work, with near certainty, a job totally unrelated to the degree you are pursuing right now at some point in your life. At many times, this thought can be diffi cult: a set, well defined 400 meter track is always easier to run than a winding forest path.

However, it is always rational to prepare yourself for the most likely future. In American high schools, computer science credits are becoming a mandatory course. I only hope that the UK can get with the times. However, when it comes to law, there is no debate that some form of adaptation needs to be made. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like the law curriculum at Oxford is accommodating to any sort of those necessary adaptations. I do expect certain forms of law, like litigation, mediation, and negotiation that require a living-breathing lawyer to do something in person, to survive.

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But, if that’s not the case for you, young, budding, aspiring Oxford law student, then you’re out of luck. In addition, technology has always proved me wrong, and I only expect that to be an exponentially truer statement in the years to come.

Welcome to the fourth Industrial Revolution, Oxonians. Don’t get left behind.

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