The BBC is running a news series called “Intelligent Machines” looking at artificial intelligence and robotics, including such wonders as corporate earnings reports and short news stories written by machines.  It reports that, according to Boston Consulting Group, by 2025 up to a quarter of jobs will be replaced by either smart software or robots.

What about us?  The BBC also provides a handy little tool for checking if you will be replaced by a robot.  Type the name of the job into the box and it will give you a percentage (of likelihood that you will be fired to make way for a robot).  Lawyers do quite well in this exercise.  You have to search using British terms for legal roles (because it’s the BBC).  Solicitors get “it’s quite unlikely (3%).”  Barristers and judges (in one category) get the same result, “it’s quite unlikely (3%).”  A few other random ones I looked at: dental nurse, “it’s too close to call (60%)”; cook, “it’s fairly likely (73%); architect, “it’s quite unlikely (2%).”

It is sort of fun to play with this.  But it poses the question in a very blunt and binary way.  I think a more critical question that we all need to ask ourselves is “will a robot take part of my job?  Which part?”

Recall that machines are already writing corporate earnings reports.  A chunk of work for corporate lawyers is writing securities disclosure for publicly traded companies.  We kind of like to think this takes a sophisticated blend of knowing what the regulations require the company to disclose, understanding the client’s business, and being sensitive to shareholder relations concerns.  But in all honesty there is a lot about this exercise that is quite mechanical.  The objective data – the company’s results – determines within quite narrow parameters what the permissible writing choices are.  If a machine can write corporate earnings reports, it can’t be long before they’re writing prospectuses and annual reports.  There would probably also be a need for final checking and tweaking by humans.  That’s where the deep knowledge of the rules, the company’s business, and the perceptions of shareholders would be all-important.  For all I know this is already happening.

So let’s say that this is an example of something that’s now part of the job for some lawyers, and that robots are likely to take most of it.  What does it mean for our profession if this kind of work is taken over by the intelligent machines?

Here’s an interesting excerpt from the BBC story:

Narrative Science chief scientist Kristian Hammond has previously said that in 15 years’ time, 90% of news will be written by machines but, he told the BBC, that didn’t mean that 90% of journalist jobs would go.  “It means that the journalists can extend their reach. The world of news will expand,” he said. “The journalists will not be generating stories from data. That unambiguous, not-open-to-interpretation stuff will be done by machines.”

I am convinced that this carries over to law.  Some percentage, quite possibly an alarmingly large percentage, of what lawyers do now will be done by machines.  That doesn’t mean the same percentage of lawyers’ jobs will go.  It means the world of law will expand.  We won’t be wasting time doing utterly brainless stuff like footnotes, or somewhat brainless stuff like drafting disclosure from scratch.  We will be using our complicated, empathetic human brains for challenges that really need them.