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Will AI replace lawyers?

UQ people
Published 2 Aug, 2020  ·  3-minute read

Being a lawyer is such a uniquely human profession that lawyers are not in danger of being replaced by robots – at least, not yet.

Will lawyers be replaced by AI?

While some like to think of the law as being ‘black and white’, the truth is that it's full of grey areas.

As Dr Ryan Catterwell of UQ’s Law School explains, the same can be said of the debate about whether the legal profession is soon to be swamped by artificial intelligence (AI).

So, is there any real risk that lawyers will be replaced by AI?

Rather than it being pitted as ‘man versus machine’, Ryan believes lawyers can enhance their services and secure their long-term future through embracing technological advances; it doesn’t have to be one or the other.

“Law involves a unique skill set – the careful crafting of words, sophisticated reasoning, the art of persuasion, judgement, and building strong relationships,” says Ryan.

“It’s difficult to replicate these skills using a machine, at least applying the technology available today."

“At the moment, machines can perform a range of useful tasks like summarising contracts or locating relevant case law, but these are low-hanging fruit. The job of a lawyer is much more complex and, to be honest, exciting.”

Dr Ryan Catterwell

In fact, Ryan describes law as “one of the truly unique human professions” and suggests the relationship-building side of the pursuit may be the most important facet of all.

“As soon as anything gets complicated, the automated systems need human finesse,” he says.

“Technology can supplement the role of a lawyer. It can be a very useful aid, particularly by automating some of the more mundane tasks. But it cannot completely replace lawyers.

“At UQ, we train our law students to think about how technology can be used in law. To do this, they need a comprehensive understanding of the law, an appreciation of what can be done using technology and a solid doctrinal education. Students need a powerful ability to reason."

“It’s after this foundation has been built that aspiring lawyers can start exploring some of the interesting ‘unknowns’, such as whether we can replicate legal reasoning by designing a set of steps – a decision tree – that a machine can follow. Or can we use pattern recognition – data analytics – to provide more efficient and effective legal services?”

Robots replacing lawyers seems unlikely anytime soon

Ryan argues that even automation through the design of a decision tree has its obstacles. In particular, it requires mapping out all the affirmative and negative answers for potential situations. The complex and nuanced nature of law makes that in itself a highly difficult task, with significant potential for the process to break down if a question or response strays outside the expected bounds.

“At the end of the day, words are the primary tool of a lawyer. We advise, we persuade, we reason, we empathise,” he says.

“Emotion is a critical factor. The differences you can make through the subtlety and finesse of language, to engage with clients, judges and the broader community – it is hard to see a machine conquering these anytime soon.

“That said, there are a lot of very interesting and useful things we can do, using technology, to better lawyers, the legal industry and, critically, clients – those who use legal services. The practice of law will always involve a fusion of human and artificial expertise. Despite what people may think at times, lawyers are inherently human.”

Learn to use your persuasive skills to full advantage with a Bachelor of Laws (Honours) at UQ.

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