The "robots are coming for your job" anxiety that's been simmering for the past five to ten years is often overplayed, especially for lawyers. While artificial intelligence and other new tech can certainly make a lawyer's job easier, only lawyers -- human ones -- can practice law. So far.
But that may be changing in California. The state bar's Task Force on Access Through Innovation of Legal Services recently recommended authorizing "technology-driven delivery systems to engage in authorized practice of law activities." So yeah, it sure sounds like the legal robots are coming for your lawyerin' job.
Few would argue that there isn't a significant gap in the accessibility of legal services, especially for low-income people. (The California Bar task force also recommended allowing non-lawyer "legal technicians" to deliver legal services.) And the increased use of AI could ostensibly fill that gap. And although these are mere recommendations and far from taking effect, the bar's view of the kind of services AI employed by state-certified entities could provide is expansive:
Regulated entities should not be limited or restrained by any concept or definition of "artificial intelligence." Instead, regulated entities should be limited by the concept of "legal technology," which is defined as a technologically mediated solution (i.e., entailing substantial use of software-data platforms) that embodies the traditional analytic function, understanding, and/or insight of an expert attorney or member of the judiciary. This may include the technologically mediated application of law to a specific case.
Non-Lawyer-Owned Law Firms
Importantly, the task force also recommended allowing non-lawyers to have an ownership interest in law firms and " businesses engaged in the practice of law." This would seemingly open the door for accounting firms and startups to create AI-powered apps and websites to deliver legal advice. Above the Law's Steven Chung sees the rise of the machines at hand:
If the task force’s proposals pass, I question whether this will result in limited license non-lawyers opening up shop in remote parts of California. Instead, it will open the door for venture-capital-funded startups to set up AI powered legal self-help websites. People can access these sites with their legal questions or issues and artificial intelligence will provide the answers and probably the documents as well.
Or this can result in the creation of "Uberlaw" where a website connects the client with the attorney. But the website will set the price and the terms of the attorney-client relationship. And if the client gives the attorney less than five stars, the lawyer can be removed. Meanwhile, the lawyer will still be responsible for her overhead and will be responsible if something goes wrong.
But this is more about penny-pinching than pearl-clutching. What will almost certainly happen is that small firms and solo practitioners who are trying to fill the aforementioned gap in legal services will be squeezed even tighter, and find themselves trying to survive on ever-thinning margins.
Legal tech, legal technicians, and non-lawyers may be coming for lawyers' jobs, but they're not here yet. The California bar's Board of Trustees meets tomorrow to review the task force's proposals and then the public will have 60 days to comment. Lawyers should speak now, or forever hold their (irrelevant) degrees.