Simple legal jobs (such as document coding) are prime candidates for legal automation. More complex tasks cannot be routinized. So far, the debate on the likely scope and intensity of legal automation has focused on the degree to which legal tasks are simple or complex. Just as important to the legal profession, however, is the degree of regulation or deregulation likely in the future.
Situations involving conflicting rights, unique fact patterns, and open-ended laws will remain excessively difficult to automate for an extended period of time. Deregulation, however, may effectively strip many persons of their rights, rendering once-hard cases simple. Similarly, disputes that now seem easy, because one party is so clearly in the right, may be rendered hard to automate by new rules that give now-disadvantaged parties new rights. By explaining how each of these reversals could arise, this Essay combines technical and sociological analyses of the future of legal automation. We conclude that the future of artificial intelligence in law is more open ended than most commentators suggest.The authors go on to argue
Will software substitute for lawyers, or increase their earning power? There will be evidence of each in coming decades: Routine work will continue to be automated, while new opportunities will also emerge. The critical question is which trend will be dominant, and what its effect will be.
Scholars have addressed the automation of legal processes since at least the 1960s. None foresaw all the critical developments of the past two decades and detailed prognostication is still a fool’s errand. Nevertheless, in a time of rapid technological change, scenario analysis can help clarify the possibilities ahead. This Essay describes four possible future climates for the development of legal automation, ranging from a computationally administered “society of control” to a muddling continuation of the status quo.
The future of law and computation is more open ended than most commentators suggest. By mechanically extrapolating present trends in document review into the future, for example, one might expect replacement of lawyers en masse by software. Yet two leading experts on automation say that computerization of legal research will complement the work of many lawyers, rather than substitute for them. They categorize the careers of attorneys as having a “low risk” of computerization, at least compared with employment generally. This is not to say that law practice has reached some steady state of balance between human capital and software. Rather, the agenda for researchers must shift toward direct examination of law’s diverse practice areas and functions. This Essay lays out a research agenda for better-grounded predictions about the future course of automation, in areas ranging from business formation and mergers and acquisitions, to compliance, to discovery and fact investigation, to litigation, legislation, and regulation.
While we extend and develop extant debates on the degree of automatability of legal tasks, we also acknowledge the sociological and political nature of the discussion. Extralegal developments will be crucial in determining the future balance of computational and human intelligence in the law. No profession is an island, untouched by the trends in power, wealth, influence and status prevailing in the society in which it is embedded. During the New Deal and Great Society, the importance of lawyers rose as they articulated the reach and limits of new social and economic rights. The Affordable Care Act and Dodd-Frank Act could presage a similar rise in the value of lawyers’ services.
There are, however, countervailing social forces. Government employment has declined dramatically during the Obama administration, particularly in state and local offices.Even with their many new powers, regulators are hard- pressed to increase enforcement intensity without added resources. A judiciary often hostile to regulatory action can slow down or stop major initiatives.Most importantly, when neoliberal corporations and individuals become wealthy enough, they are able to shape a climate of opinion that tends toward the marginalization and even trivialization of the type of legal work traditionally considered essential to the fair and efficient working of markets, public programs, and society in general. Some vanguardist technologists even dismiss law as an outdated app ripe to be replaced by a combination of markets, reputational intermediaries, blockchains, and distributed autonomous organizations.
To predict the future of legal automation, we take key considerations internal and external to the legal profession as fundamental variables. Different types of legal work are more or less susceptible to automation. Society can be more or less regulatory and more or less open to procedural protections. A basic schematic emerges ...
We use this schematic as a tool for thinking and as a way of organizing future scenarios. Abstract trends like automation and regulation can have very concrete consequences, as our description of the numbered scenarios above will demonstrate.
The first scenario, a Vestigial Legal Profession, can be expected in legal practice areas now serving industries that continue to deregulate. For advocates of disruptive innovation like Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen, that is a consummation devoutly to be wished. Christensen’s acolytes in the legal academy tend to see much of law as little more than a transaction cost imposed on job-creating businesses. From their perspective, automation both reflects and reinforces trends toward laissez-faire deregulation. Simple, precise legal rules are easy to automate. As attorneys’ roles are increasingly taken over by machines, their social prestige declines—thus vitiating their ability to propose more complex or expansive regulatory regimes.
But what happens if artificial intelligence and regulation both advance? This scenario portends what French social theorist Gilles Deleuze called a “Society of Control;” namely, a world in which human action is increasingly managed and monitored by machines. As Peter Reinhardt recently observed, at firms like Uber and 99designs, “lines of code directly control real humans.” In government, too, software can effectively make determinations about who will be audited, who will receive benefits, or who will be denied access to a flight. It is possible to imagine whole areas of law relegated to computational implementation. For example, Lawrence Solum has posited (not endorsed) the development of an “Artificially Intelligent Traffic Authority (AITA),” which could “adapt itself to changes in driver behavior and traffic flow.” The system would be designed to “introduce random variations and run controlled experiments to evaluate the effects of various combinations on traffic pattern.” But the system would not be very forgiving of individual experimentation with, say, violating its rules. Rather, as imagined by Solum, “[v]iolations would be detected by an elaborate system of electronic surveillance” and offenders would be “identified and immediately . . . removed from traffic by a system of cranes located at key intersections.”
Solum uses this example to break down the usual distinctions between human and artificial meaning in the law, rather than as a policy proposal for the future of transportation. The scenario is just as useful to flag the inevitable legal and political aspects of automated law enforcement, even in an area as seemingly technical as traffic. Would the cranes posited in Solum’s hypothetical surgically remove protesters, like the Ferguson marchers, who blocked highways? Would anyone with an expired license or tags be plucked away as well—in a vision already half-realized by subprime lenders who stop cars remotely as soon as a payment is late?
Both the Vestigial Legal Profession and Society of Control scenarios may seem unduly futuristic — and indeed warrant skepticism. As the third scenario — Status Quo — suggests, it is entirely possible that legal automation will move forward far more slowly than many predict or expect. While the legal profession may decline in importance (if not in employment levels), it may not be nearly as susceptible to automation as other fields.
By contrast, robust growth in jobs for those with legal training would likely occur under a fourth scenario, called the “Second Great Compression.” Among economists, the Great Compression is the period from roughly 1947 to 1979 when income growth was roughly evenly distributed among quintiles. Since 1979, most income gains have gone to the top quintile, and within that group, the top 1 percent (and within that group, the top 0.1 percent).19 Reversing that trend toward concentration of income would take very high levels of legal regulation of enterprises, and a rebalancing of the relative power of the state and business to favor the enhanced autonomy of the former. Each trend in the Second Great Compression scenario would increase the power (and, likely, the earnings) of attorneys.
By describing these trends in greater detail below, this Essay illuminates the relative plausibility of each scenario. It takes seriously the possibility of both self-fulfilling and self-preventing prophecies. Both Status Quo and Second Great Compression are likely to be more humane scenarios than Vestigial Legal Profession and Society of Control. This work is designed to make it more difficult for key policymakers to accept either of those high-automation scenarios uncritically. And if these substandard scenarios do indeed come to pass, at least the profession was warned in advance.