The Robolawyer Revolution: Can a Robot Replace Your Firm’s Attorneys?

9 min read

Robolawyers have come a long way – but do they pose a threat to your law firm, or are they an uncapitalized opportunity?

Read on to discover why we don’t yet need to worry about robots taking our jobs – and how your law firm can actually benefit from having a robot on the payroll.

Robolawyers have captured the legal industry’s attention and imagination in recent years. From the moment law firms started hiring ROSS, an artificial intelligence lawyer built on IBM’s Watson framework, the industry has speculated on just how much legal work an artificial intelligence can perform. While some in the legal industry have perceived AI lawyers like ROSS to be a threat, with Thomson Reuters going so far as to file a lawsuit that spelled the end of ROSS, this hasn’t deterred ambitious technology companies from pushing the boundaries of AI. As artificial intelligence advances, and as legal AI in particular continues to learn, the question inevitably arises: At what point are human attorneys obsolete? 

There’s no shortage of robolawyers to be found, and some of the innovators who are creating these technologies have made it clear that their goal is indeed to replace lawyers. In 2017, British-American technologist and entrepreneur Joshua Browder invented DoNotPay, a mobile app that claims to be “the world’s first robot lawyer”. 

Browder created DoNotPay as an automated solution for disputing municipal parking tickets, but the lawbot claims to be able to file any number of legal actions. Based in the USA and built on American legal standards, DoNotPay’s feature list includes the ability to file for bankruptcy, register a copyright, issue Freedom of Information Act requests, and “sue anyone at the press of a button”.

It’s clear that advanced technology is capable of incredible things. But should lawyers feel threatened? Is all of this innovation going to make your team obsolete? And why will clients pay your firm if a computer can do the same work as an attorney? 

As it turns out, the robolawyers come in peace. They aren’t here to rule over the legal industry with an iron fist. Here’s how your firm can navigate the rise of legal AI and benefit from the Robolawyer Revolution.

Levels of Automation: When Technology Threatens Jobs

Of course, not every piece of legal technology is a threat to lawyers. In a 2020 preprint paper, Stanford Law School professor and AI expert Dr. Lance Eliot proposed various levels of legal AI autonomy. Eliot adapted his autonomy scale from a similar one that had been established for self-driving cars. The scale ranges from Level 0: No Automation for AI Legal Reasoning, to Level 6: Superhuman Autonomous for AI Legal Reasoning. In a follow-up article for MIT released in December 2021, Eliot defines the levels of automation and elaborates on ten characteristics that determine where a piece of technology falls on the AI scale.

At the simplest end of the scale, Level 0, one finds paper-based processes and entirely manual work. Level 0 involves no automation whatsoever. At Level 6, one finds an advanced legal AI so powerful that its reasoning capabilities and ability to construct legal arguments are actually better than those of human lawyers. A Level 6 legal AI, if one were ever invented, would render human lawyers obsolete and mark an end to the legal profession as we know it.

From Eliot’s research, it becomes clear that lawyers need to fear replacement by artificial intelligence only when AI becomes advanced enough to do legal work and conduct legal reasoning as well as a human lawyer can. This would occur at Eliot’s Level 5, when the artificial intelligence can govern itself wholly independently of human input and apply legal reasoning in a versatile way in every area of law. A Level 5 legal AI would likely be able to conduct most of the same work that human lawyers do to a reasonably high standard of accuracy and quality.

Importantly, Eliot notes that as of the year 2020, no Level 5 legal AIs exist.

Even a Level 3 legal AI – which would still require significant human input, interaction, and control in order to complete legal tasks – is still in the experimental stage. Currently, the legal automation market consists mostly of Level 1 AIs, with some Level 2 AIs in use.

That means legal professionals don’t yet need to worry about being replaced by machines. The existing AI solutions on the market are not yet advanced enough to take the place of a human lawyer in all, or even most, settings. While several companies have attempted to create a Level 5 legal AI over the years, these efforts have almost always failed – usually due to a lack of legal subject matter expertise.

One of the highest-profile and most notable legal AI failures in recent years was that of Atrium AI. 

Atrium AI had been the brainchild of Justin Kan, the founder of the wildly popular Internet video streaming service Twitch. Kan secured a $970 million USD exit for himself when Internet retail and entertainment giant Amazon acquired Twitch in 2014. 

Atrium’s goal was to create a legal AI for startup founders that could replace lawyers. But even with a near-billion-dollar payday, relationships with tech industry insiders, a connection to Amazon, and $75 million USD in investor funding, Kan and Atrium still couldn’t replace human lawyers. In 2020, Atrium AI shut its doors, laying off 100 employees and returning much of its raised capital to investors. This development came after multiple rounds of staff layoffs and the closing of the company’s legal division in an attempt to boost profits.

After the company failed, Kan said that in retrospect he had hired too many people too quickly, failed to invest enough time and energy into the product, and never had a clear idea of who his intended buyers were. Kan noted that the company struggled to retain clients.

But perhaps Kan’s most egregious error was in thinking he could replace human lawyers with machines.

While Atrium had initially launched with a team of in-house human lawyers to perform client work (assisted by AI), the company quickly pivoted to an independent contractor model, with attorneys freelancing for Atrium clients. Kan’s plan was to scale up the AI software and have software-as-a-service be the company’s main revenue model.

But when Atrium clients started complaining that they weren’t receiving the same level of client service and domain-specific expertise they had come to expect from traditional law firms, those clients started leaving Atrium and attached themselves to the attorneys Atrium had laid off. These clients, it turned out, weren’t looking for a shiny new piece of software – they were looking for legal expertise from a trusted human advisor, and they viewed the software as a fringe benefit.

Even despite all the recent advances in AI technology, clients still prefer to deal with people. Artificial intelligence is capable of many amazing things, but it is not yet advanced enough to forge authentic human connections – and that’s why lawyers don’t need to fear being replaced by artificial intelligence just yet.

But what happens when legal AIs do reach human-like levels of autonomy?

Will Robolawyers Be Job Terminators?

“It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you’re unemployed.” – The Terminator (paraphrased)

While it is true that robolawyers can perform – and are performing – much of the same work that human attorneys have historically done, it’s a bit premature to suggest that today’s legal AIs will put lawyers or paralegals out of work. In fact, the overall legal AI and automation landscape has generally prioritized advancing technology that works with human attorneys, not against them.

In April 2021, ediscovery specialist Cat Casey, the Chief Growth Officer for AI-powered ediscovery platform Reveal, wrote in a blog article for Electronic Discovery Reference Model that “Modern legal AI is more focused on amplifying the human lawyer by reducing time to evidence and automating low-level tasks…the use of advanced machine learning and AI to handle repetitive tasks frees up humans to focus on higher value tasks that are probably closer to the reason you went (in)to law in the first place.”

Embracing Legal AI & Automation – Now and in the Future

Legal AI & automation technology aren’t going anywhere. Tech startups will continue to innovate, automation technology will continue to advance, and AI will continue to get smarter over time. Your firm can either fight a losing battle against the growing array of AI and automation solutions that have already changed the legal landscape, or adapt to this change in conditions and find a way to make AI work for you. You can choose to view legal AI as a threat, or you can choose to view it as a revenue-generating opportunity.

Legal AI innovation is indeed enabling artificial intelligence to do much of the same work that lawyers have traditionally done. But there are certain tasks, like creative problem-solving, abstract thinking, and ethical reasoning, that an artificial intelligence simply cannot replicate with any degree of competency or complexity. 

A robot lawyer can, for instance, identify all relevant examples of case law surrounding a certain legal topic and organize the relevant court files into a digital repository – but it cannot analyze or interpret that case law to tell you what it means for your particular case. A robot lawyer can tell you how a law has been applied in the past, but it cannot create a compelling argument for why a certain law may be unconstitutional or may infringe on a party’s rights.

Legal AI, then, is not a lawyer’s enemy. Artificial intelligence cannot replace a human attorney or paralegal. What it can do…is perform the repetitive administrative work that pulls your legal team out of their zone of genius. Legal AI can give overworked attorneys and paralegals the ability to spend less time filing paperwork and more time doing the fulfilling legal work they were trained to do.

Are your attorneys and paralegals investing too much time in unfulfilling paperwork & not enough time doing the high-value casework they love? 

Appara’s AI-powered document automation & records management suite can help – just ask RDM Lawyers. Discover how the corporate law department at RDM Lawyers in Abbotsford, British Columbia 2X’d their production, reduced time spent on records management by 75%, and refocused their legal team on the fulfilling legal work they were hired to do.

Get the case study now.

Join our newsletter

Engaging insights and the latest news, designed for legal professionals.

Email Newsletter Signup