The wonderful thing about predictions is that if you make one, it’ll almost certainly be wrong. Technology is easy to forecast — what’s hard to know is the social impact.
At our Northern Ireland Practice Managers’ Breakfast event, our Managing Director Paul Hobden recalled some 1980s interviews he’d recently read about, in which schoolchildren were asked to imagine what life would be like in the 2020s.
One participant predicted that sports would use robot referees whose decisions would be uncontroversial. We have that technology — football uses VAR, and Tennis has Hawkeye. What didn’t come true was the idea that people wouldn’t argue with it.
Another interviewee foresaw cameras all over our major cities linked to vast computer databases. Spot on. The pupil then ventured that the cameras would identify burglars and vandals, and ‘eliminate’ them. Well, we are tentatively introducing facial recognition technology, but the authorities haven’t made that step towards summary capital justice. Yet.
So, we know where AI is heading, but what will the impact be on law? We’ve created a LinkedIn group where practice managers can freely discuss the most pressing topics with their peers. Join the conversation there, and in the meantime, read on to see what your fellow practice managers are saying about AI.
Eliminating tedious and error-prone work
It starts with automation. Programmes can already complete routine tasks by following a set of rules.
One of our roundtable participants said: ‘You can get a bank statement to automatically replicate itself within posting so that simple posting errors are eliminated. My bookkeeper used to come to me and say, ‘It won’t balance’. I can’t imagine the amount of time we wasted searching for errors we’d put in — things like ‘288’ instead of ‘228’ — simply because we were transferring data from statements.’
With true AI, you won’t need to learn a system or create the rules, because the AI will do that. It will also observe how the firm works, and design processes around the preferences it discovers.
Of course, you can’t discuss AI without mentioning ChatGPT.
Having been sceptical, one practice manager was pleasantly surprised at its results: ‘I was surprised at the pressure it took off the reply I had to write. ChatGPT doesn’t have worries like a case’s outcome, a professional reputation, or a client relationship, so it just writes without that baggage. Then as the solicitor. You can just ask it to it change the tone, if necessary, and make it softer.’
AI’s creativity and ability to learn will eventually mean it can look at the facts of a case, and predict or suggest the best outcome for both parties. You can imagine a lot of negotiation time saved by starting with the resolution and allowing the two sides to work with that more-established framework. A disinterested third party like AI could allow that to happen.
Paul illustrated the human bias inherent to predictions or proposals by citing a 2011 study of judges on a parole board. The data indicated that regardless of the merits of an individual case, there was a direct correlation between the likelihood of parole being granted and how tired or hungry the judges were.
Summer blues: the risks to morale and recovery
If any member of staff feels that they can’t relax on their time off, then of course their wellbeing and the quality of their work will suffer on their return. At the same time, their colleagues will find it extremely demoralising to find their practice manager checking in on them from leave, communicating that the team is ineffective or untrustworthy without them.
Now to the uncertainty. Just because consequences are unpredictable, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try and predict them.
Will solicitors be replaced?
Is there a risk that the more AI can handle, the less solicitors will be needed?
One practice manager certainly worried about that: ‘If someone can go to ChatGPT and get legal advice, that would be my big concern.’
Another was less concerned: ‘Your client is engaging you for your knowledge and advice as well as your being able to write a letter. Generally, when people want help with something, they want someone on their side. AI means you can give them more of your full attention instead of spending time on admin.’
Paul agreed: ‘A client doesn’t care how you got to the answer. What they’re buying from you is confidence, empathy, support, and advice.’
Another participant added: ‘You’re also buying knowledge of how the system works in your local environment. For example, how a particular judge deals with things.’
Headcount will drop
A lot of industries are facing the likelihood that certain roles will become obsolete as AI advances, and that worries many.
One practice manager pointed out: ‘As an industry we’ve always adapted to technology and used it to our advantage. When I started you had audio typists listening to tape and typing them up. Those jobs are long gone. Technology has changed a lot, and I don’t see that we need to worry about it changing further.’
Additionally, plenty of firms will have no need to make redundancies because they don’t have enough staff after the great resignation: ‘People are working very long hours because secretaries are impossible to come by. Quite a few firms would welcome AI.’
AI adoption and confidence will grow
There’s a marked difference between digital natives and digital migrants when it comes to new technology.
‘If I want a fee-earner to do a bit of data entry, they’re scared of it,’ said one practice manager, ‘They’re afraid of compliance so they want to leave it to the bookkeepers. But the programmes are compliant by design — it’s basically impossible not to get it right.’
Another PM agreed: ‘You give something to a young person and they say, “Oh yeah, I can do that”. There’s no fear.’
Paul concluded: ‘Digital natives don’t think they’re going to break anything. Because you can’t break the tech these days. When tech first arrived, it was quite easy to break a system, and we were afraid of getting in trouble when somebody had to fix it. I think that fear is something people will get over.’