09 June 2017

Workplace evolution - will robots take our place?

Robots have a role in the workplace but humans will always be crucial, says Matthew Kay of Vario.

When we think of artificial intelligence (AI), we tend to think of the many, many depictions of robots in the films – whether it be Will Smith doing battle with the evil humanoid robots in 2004’s I, Robot, or the manipulative Ava, played by Alicia Vikander in Ex Machina. We often think about these nightmarish manifestations when we see news stories about robots, but the truth is robots and AI systems are becoming more prevalent in this modern world. And rather than a robot stood on two legs and vying with mankind for power, these robots are slowly but surely injecting a change into the ways businesses use their workforce.

Robot revolution

Recent research from The Nikkei and the Financial Times has found that about one-third of 2,000 workplace tasks currently performed by humans could be done by machines and in Japan this number is even higher – with around half of all tasks able to be done by a robot. As expected, the tasks most likely to be taken on by a machine are simple and repetitive – on a production line for instance. But that does not mean that it’s just car production line workers likely to see their jobs evolve as a result of this so-called ‘robot revolution.'

Robots in a law firm

The legal profession is already seeing a number of technological innovations enhancing productivity. For example, a number of large law firms are starting to use ‘ROSS’ billed as the world’s ‘first robot lawyer’. Powered by IBM’s Watson technology, this AI machine can efficiently sift through huge numbers of legal documents, making the process more effectual and less likely to be victim to human error. Likewise, we’re seeing more simple changes impact how legal work is done. For example, all documents now have to be filed electronically in the Rolls Building (implemented on 25 April earlier this year). All steps are towards a technological revolution in the legal sector. 

Human expertise

The potential use for robots in the legal sector are complementary to the work of lawyers. While AI and big data make processes such as document review more efficient, it is at its most effective when combined with human expertise. Last year, Pinsent Masons announced that it had built a program which guides lawyers through tasks by bringing in documents, templates and information on legal precedents, for instance allowing lawyers to assess legal risks against consistent, detailed criteria set centrally. The firm’s ‘TermFrame’ system means its legal teams are able to delve deeper into the requirements of its clients and scale up its work to a level that would hitherto have been unfeasible.

The future for a human lawyer

So what does all this change mean for lawyers? Of course, human input will always be crucial, especially in law, but it is worth thinking about the added value that people generate which simply can't be achieved through AI. Although it may seem obvious, there are some risks and issues worth thinking about.

Emotional intelligence

The real advantage a human lawyer has over an AI system or robot is being able to interact with clients and not just respond to questions and queries but build a relationship and establish trust. And it’s not just increasing automation which should have lawyers thinking about their soft skills – it is an important issue to consider anyway and can help ensure a lawyer stands apart from their competitors. At Vario, we know the importance of soft skills in addition to technical legal knowledge and we place real emphasis on good emotional intelligence when it comes to hiring contract lawyers. Contract lawyers are parachuted into assignments and are expected to perform from day one - simple skills like small talk can help to integrate an individual into a client and build trust.  Not everyone has high levels of emotional intelligence and it can be harder for some to recognise other people’s emotions and adapt their own behaviours accordingly, but these skills can be learned and we have put on training sessions for lawyers to boost their own emotional intelligence. 

Food for thought

So, the technological advances we're witnessing could prompt  food for thought for lawyers. There are certainly opportunities to utilise these AI systems to boost efficiency and cuts costs. Likewise, these new entrants into the legal market also shine a light on what lawyers are offering to their clients and how to ensure they aren’t just going through the motions, but also thinking about relationships and the all-important human side of law.

Matthew Kay, Director of Vario from Pinsent Masons