I made the mistake of going into a deep dive on legal AI the other day and googling “will paralegals be replaced by robots?” and I was in that rabbit hole for over an hour. It might have been double that, but I had a live webinar I was presenting to a law firm on billable hours. Kind of ironic, I know. Here’s some advice, if you have a billable hour requirement, don’t google that phrase during work hours.
But after I finished the law firm training, I sat down and thought about everything I’d read and watched on the topic of legal AI and technology in the legal profession, and realized what better use of that time than to talk about it here in our blog!
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Paralegals Replaced by Robots?!
I get why there might be some concern. There was a 2013 Oxford Study (yes, that was almost a decade ago), that said 1 out of every 2 jobs will be eliminated by machines. We see it in grocery stores and even Walmarts and Targets. A group of 6 self-checkouts is managed by one person.
But that’s an easy task to automate. Scanning the price of a can of soup is a lot different than what a paralegal does.
But, then there’s the 2017 ABA Journal article titled “Paralegal Robot Reviews Patent Documents.” In it, they announced the launch of Robo Review, a software that incorporates legal AI to help lawyers research patent applications before filing. Something a patent paralegal might typically do.
If you’re in litigation, you’ve been hearing about and working with legal AI in your eDiscovery technology tools for years.
But here’s the thing, legal AI in eDiscovery tools has been around for over a decade. There are still plenty of litigation paralegal jobs out there, especially if you’re one of the paralegals who has embraced technology instead of fighting against it.
The role of a paralegal
Let me explain by telling you about a conference that I attended around 5 or 6 years ago now. It was an eDiscovery conference, and I was one of the speakers. In addition to doing a presentation, I sat on a panel with two other people in a roundtable discussion with the audience answering questions about eDiscovery. One of the panel members was a legal recruiter for litigation support and other legal technology jobs and the other one was the founder of an eDiscovery technology company that had only been in business for a few years, back then.
One of the members of the audience asked us if the eDiscovery technology that was being developed at the time would eventually put paralegals out of jobs.
And we discussed that it would only put those paralegals out that are button pushers. The role of a paralegal has evolved with technology and because of technology, not in spite of technology.
Ask someone who’s been a paralegal for 20 or 30 years what their role was back in the 90s compared to their role today. What did a typical day look like back then, let’s say as a litigation paralegal?
Well, we received a bankers box of paper documents from the client that we had to review, determine if they’re responsive to opposing counsel’s discovery requests, analyze for any privileged or confidential information, then bates stamp them, catalog them or index them in a Word file, make a copy and then produce one of the copy sets to opposing counsel.
Today, a litigation paralegal’s role looks nothing like that. The reason it doesn’t is because of technology. You heard me talk about that briefly in an earlier blog post on “Things We’re Glad Have Changed in the Paralegal Profession.”
First, let’s make sure we’re clear on the two different terms that relate to the technology I’m talking about today. There’s automation which refers to making something happen automatically and legal AI or artificial intelligence. With automation, we use technology to complete repetitive tasks using technology. For example, instead of manually stamping production numbers on documents, you use the numbering feature in Adobe. Or you set up an automation that sends a new client a welcome email after the engagement letter is uploaded to the firm’s intake system.
Inside the Litigation Boot Camp program, I stress the importance of systematizing and automating as many routine tasks as you can because it frees up your focus so that you can pay closer attention to detail on the other work.
Outside of work, we are incorporating automation into many things. We can get Alexa to adjust the temperature of our homes. We can set up automatic refill orders with Google Homes. The options are endless.
Automation is good for us. It frees up our time for higher-level thinking and higher-level work.
AI is different than automation. AI is the use of advanced computing algorithms that aim to simulate the thought patterns of humans, ultimately making autonomous decisions without much involvement from us.
Now before you assume that’s a bad thing, let’s discuss it. And that’s all this blog post really is – the start of a conversation. It’s not for me to convince you that it’s a good thing or a bad thing. I just want to start a conversation about legal AI and automation and what those might mean for paralegals in the future. More importantly, if it is something that could affect the future of your career, I want to give you some strategies to protect your paralegal career.
Machines learn by analyzing thousands of similar things, or situations. In other words, machines are good for frequent, high-volume tasks. Machines (or robots) can’t tackle novel situations. Machines do not have problem-solving skills or critical-thinking skills.
The machines have to be taught by someone. Let me give you an example, back to the AI in eDiscovery technology. The only way that technology works is if someone is first reviewing a small subset of the data and marking it as responsive or nonresponsive. Then the machine goes out and finds similar data and marks it the same. The litigation paralegal then confirms whether or not those were correct, and the machine goes out and gets more. And so on and so on. It’s not like we’re dumping in a terabyte of data and the machine does it all on its own.
It’s the same with AI in any practice area.
I found an article out there when I was in that rabbit hole that said there were several industries that require human touch that robots don’t have and the legal profession is one of them. And think about it, no program or machine can prepare for all possible scenarios of case strategy. A machine can’t participate in contract negotiations.
Let’s look at just a few of the skills that paralegals possess and how a robot would compare, or should I say, compete for that paralegal’s position.
Paralegals literally manage piles of information on a daily basis. Reports, communications, and various documents related to different client files. Those have to be reviewed and analyzed for relevance or follow-up that’s needed.
Now, could a robot file the documents in their appropriate location within a computerized client file? Yes. They could probably do that.
Could they extract certain data and copy that into a case management system? Yes, probably.
Could a robot pick up on a new name they haven’t seen before in discovery responses and add that name to a potential witness list? Sure.
But can they use critical thinking to make a determination on whether or not that witness is relevant enough to add to a potential witness list? Probably not.
Paralegals have sharp research skills to look up case law, rules, regulations, statutes, and other information that would be relevant to representing a client.
Can a robot do legal research? Sure. Just go do some searching in Westlaw and Lexis. You’ll see a robot at work. But can a robot read the regulation and apply it to the facts, and then understand that some supporting case law might be needed to bolster the argument? Probably not.
Paralegals are also good communicators as they are expected to communicate with attorneys, clients, witnesses, court personnel, and other professionals working in the legal profession.
Could a robot place a call to opposing counsel to set up a date for a mediation? Sure. Could that robot answer questions from that opposing counsel? Yes, if the robot was programmed with responses to typical questions.
But what if the opposing counsel said something like: Can you repeat to me what your attorney has said about the likelihood of settling this case? Would the robot repeat the last words it heard from the attorney about the case? Would the robot know if it was giving someone what would be attorney work product? Probably not.
This is just the tip of the iceberg, considering the role of paralegals and the work they do to support attorneys.
But it’s very natural to wonder if the increase in technology would pose a threat to paralegals. Because according to Forbes, law firms are already using AI to more efficiently perform due diligence, conduct research, and bill their time.
The automation in paralegal work can and should streamline some manual tasks that would otherwise take time. However, it doesn’t mean that automation or robots are a threat – it is actually the opposite. Automating time-consuming routine tasks can free up a paralegal’s time to work on substantive work that is more challenging and rewarding.
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Build Career Security
Let me give you 4 steps to ensure your career security regardless of what happens with legal AI and robots.
- Embrace the technology and know how you can benefit from it. Know how your attorneys can benefit from it and how the clients can benefit from it. Stay up to date on the technology that’s available in your practice area, whether you use the technology or not – know what’s available. You know the saying – the machines are only as smart as their operators. If you’re the one in charge of the robot, you win.
- Improve your problem-solving skills. This skill is the #1 skill that attorneys want in their paralegals. They want paralegals who solve their problems and there are actually things you can do to improve your problem-solving.
- Work on your critical thinking skills. We had a guest blog post just a few weeks ago from Brett Surbey on this topic. In it, he gave three possible ways to improve your thinking skills. One was to learn to think about how you think. Another way was to learn how to not think (in other words, to recognize mistakes in reasoning. And he also suggested reading. To become as informed as possible in order to make better judgments. I recommend you read his entire article. I’ll put a link to it in the show notes.
- Focus on your career security instead of job security. Sit down and write out a career development plan. What skills do you need to acquire or improve so that it doesn’t matter what happens in your current job or what happens in the industry because you’ve insulated yourself. In other words, have a career development plan so that it doesn’t matter if your employer wants to pay for some course or workshop, it doesn’t matter if your employer decides you’re part of the down-sizing, and it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been working there – do things that are adding value to your paralegal career so that you never have to worry if something changes down the road. Don’t get comfortable. I see it too often. And I get it, it’s easy to do. You like your employer, your supervisor, your firm, your colleagues. They pay you well, you have a good benefit package…and you’re super busy. So why take the time out to get certified in such and such? Why spend that $500 out of your own pocket? Because this is your career. It’s not about your job.
To answer the question, will paralegals be replaced by robots, in my opinion, they won’t. What’s your opinion? Put it in the comments below!
Meet the Author
Ann Pearson is the Founder of the Paralegal Boot Camp, and host of the Paralegals on Fire! Podcast Show, and passionate about promoting the paralegal profession.
Ann spent 20 years working as a paralegal manager and a litigation paralegal before opening the Paralegal Boot Camp in 2010. Her training programs focus on adding immediate value to a paralegal’s career and bridging the gap between what a paralegal learns in school and what they actually do on the job.
When Ann is not working, you can usually find her somewhere near the ocean, either boating, scuba diving, or rescuing sea turtles.