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Northern Ireland legal innovation director on choosing between barristers and bots

Jane Hollway

Jane Hollway

If you could choose between a barrister and a bot, which would you prefer? Twenty years ago, there would have been no contest between the two. In five years, perhaps there will be.

The past decade marked an explosion of fervent activity legal tech. Aggressive start-ups took on the established tech giants. The cloud became the number one disruptor to legacy, on-premises solutions. Mobile tech set lawyers free to roam and cleared the pathway for diversity and agility.

Companies strive for greater efficiency and transparency, and they demand the same from the lawyers they hire. Robots arrived to compete for… or complement (depending on how you choose to look at it) our jobs.

Artificial intelligence, once just the plot device of dystopian science fiction, has had an ongoing role in the disruption of the practice of law. The looming threat of automation has captured the attention of the profession. Cost pressures and tech transformations have come to define the last decade of legal practice.

Tech is no longer seen as a cost centre for law firms. Large law firms already apply machine learning and automation tools to drive down costs. The idea that a robot or a computer could perform the work of a lawyer (as defined by what a lawyer currently does) sustains vexed debate. Tech optimists speak of advances in machine learning and natural language processing as evidence of the impending likelihood that computers will replace the legal workforce wholesale. They rely on the potential for tech-driven algorithms to evolve to such a state that they can convincingly mirror (or exceed) human performance.

The tasks that lawyers undertake now are not the tasks that they were performing 50 years ago.

The question is not whether tech will ever be capable of doing what lawyers do now but whether technology can replace the type of work that lawyers are likely to be doing in the future.

With an influx of international legal and financial service providers to Belfast, firms are embracing technology to develop innovative solutions for clients' problems - making the delivery of professional services quicker, cheaper and more accurate.

These changes are competition driven and client-led. Belfast is now to the forefront internationally in tech-driven innovation within law and business. The tech start-up community here is leading the charge.

Numerous studies have suggested that between 40% and 50% of all work could be automated in the next two decades, with those most at risk of being displaced, not only the youngest but also the oldest workers, and disproportionately women.

Moreover, with a mobile labour market, the challenge of recouping all the costs of training through high retention rates are proving a disincentive for business investment.

So, today, I would still choose a lawyer over an algorithm but would much rather have a lawyer who uses AI-powered tools in their practice. However, with incredible advances in natural and legal language processing and machine learning techniques, perhaps AI lawyers will soon prove worthy opponents in the adversarial process?

Jane Hollway is a director of the Legal Innovation Centre at Ulster University

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