If you’ve been reading any sort of industry publications these days, you have heard about Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the supposed threat it’s posing to the legal profession as a whole.
 
First, let us say this: we don’t expect lawyers to become completely obsolete in the face of AI. But we do anticipate some interesting (and perhaps liberating) changes to the way firms operate as this technology advances.
 
Below we’ll walk through what Artificial Intelligence is, why firms are concerned about this technology, and what your firm needs to keep in mind over the next few years.
 

What is Artificial Intelligence?

Today, the term “Artificial Intelligence” refers to technology that mimics human intelligence by interpreting speech and visual cues, and using those inputs to make decisions. It’s automation on steroids.
 
One of the most widely-recognized examples of this technology is IBM’s Watson computer system, which has developed from a question-answering Jeopardy! champion in 2011 to a system that defeated a professional player at Go, a game long thought to be the most difficult for AI to master, period.
 

Why firms are concerned about Artificial Intelligence

Part of why Artificial Intelligence is so alarming to firms is that they’ve already seen humans replaced by technology in their industry; while there used to be an almost perfect 1:1 ratio of lawyers to assistants, technology has now empowered one assistant to serve anywhere from three to ten lawyers within a firm.
 
Some of the lower-level work that used to fall to junior associates can already be performed by software programs or by even more economical outside resources. So what’s to say that a decent AI program won’t take over the duties that now fall to a seasoned lawyer?
 

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Watson is already being used in tax preparation programs, so is the fate of the tax attorney sealed? Are there really any bounds or limitations to what this technology will be able to accomplish?
 

What your firm needs to know

All told, similar to our stance on blockchain, we feel that AI is not an immediate threat to your firm, but it is worth keeping an eye on.
 
Today, it’s far more feasible for small and mid-sized firms to pay junior associates to complete the kind of work that Artificial Intelligence could currently take on; there’s no compelling reason for you to go out of your way to try to enlist any (expensive) AI programs right now, as you’d be paying more for the same results. (And your clients, who are increasingly demanding efficiency and cost-effectiveness from their chosen firm, would likely prefer that you not take on these extraneous investments.)
 

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As this technology advances over the next three to five years, however, we could see it becoming more affordable and more accessible, and potentially taking over some of the tasks that fall to your junior associates, along with some of the more transactional types of law like bankruptcy and immigration.
 
In the meantime, your time right now would perhaps be better spent investigating the ethical and legal implications of this technology, as Artificial Intelligence – should you choose to invest the time and effort in the necessary research – could become a growth practice area for your firm.
 
At that point, this potential threat to your firm becomes quite the competitive advantage.

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