How close are we really to replacing lawyers with robots? An Australian team of innovators built the world’s first lawyer for Amazon Alexa to find out.
Imagine a day in the life of a lawyer in 2025.
Lawyers of the future may not visit clients in flying cars, but the cars will almost certainly drive themselves. On the way there, an intelligent assistant speaking into your wireless earphones will brief you about the person you’re about to meet, based on the huge troves of publicly available data online. Without the client writing down a single address or phone number, intelligent software will build a profile of everything the lawyer needs to know. So what happens when the lawyer returns to their office to draft a legal document for them?
At Smarter Drafter, a software company creating artificially intelligent (AI) tools for lawyers, we put together a team to find out how far the technology can be pushed.
We imagined that in the future the lines between human and AI lawyers will be blended, as they work together as a single team. Human lawyers would interact with these AI lawyers as often as they would their human colleagues. We imagined that on returning to the office (or even in the car on the way back), the lawyer would delegate the document drafting to the AI, just like they would to a human lawyer.
With that vision in mind, we built the world’s first Amazon Alexa lawyer. Alexa is the voice assistant created by Amazon, similar to Siri or Google Assistant. When you’re ready to create a legal document, ask Alexa. She’ll ask you a few relevant questions, then instantly create the document and email it to you.
For us, this wasn’t a huge technological leap – we have already developed the most powerful document drafting tool available to lawyers. Smarter Drafter has been used by more than 200 law firms and, from a computer or phone, will do the drafting that takes up so much of a lawyer's time. In fact, the lawyers using our system already describe it as like having a team of virtual lawyers that ask the right questions and do perfect drafting. The innovation here was building our Smart Q&As into a voice interface. We wanted to see if the software could pass the Turing Test, a test of software intelligence, requiring that a human-being should be unable to distinguish the machine from another human being by using the replies to questions put to both. Would our virtual lawyer pass the test?
You can see Smarter Drafter's Alexa Lawyer in action in this video.
So what’s our assessment?
It’s fascinating to interact with Alexa – it really is just like a human lawyer taking a brief. Being able to rattle off key facts while driving, walking, or making a coffee is a real game changer for productivity. It’s a powerful example of a tool for lawyers that is present wherever the lawyer needs it.
There is also something magical about seeing lawyers interact with a voice assistant – their eyes light up. Well, most lawyers. There was a remarkable point in development when an intern, herself a law student in her first year of study, was bug-testing the integration. As she rattled off test phrases to Alexa, she realised she was training her robotic replacement, and that replacement would be ready before she landed her first graduate job. Suffice it to say, she was not happy at the new threat to her job.
One of the most difficult problems with voice interfaces is getting the spelling right! It’s hard enough to give your name over the phone to a human, so how can an AI get it right? To understand that limitation, we need to look at how voice assistants work. The algorithms that drive voice assistants currently use what’s called a "look up list”. When you say something to Alexa (or Siri, or Google etc), they break the sounds they’ve heard into individual phonemes, then match that sequence to the most likely word or phrase in a list of possible words. When it comes to names (of people, companies, trusts etc), voice interfaces struggle if they don’t have that name already in a list. If the named person is already a contact in your iPhone, Siri knows that “Ed Gee” is a person. If there is no Ed Gee in your address book, she’ll assume you’re saying “edgy”, and then you’re back to correcting her by spelling names letter-by-letter. This is the biggest limitation of voice assistants in legal services. However, this can be solved by having larger data sets with contextual information as a reference source. For example, if a client doing estate planning gives access to their address book, Alexa can recognise the names of all the beneficiaries. Likewise, an integration with the ASIC Company Register will produce many matches.
Voice interfaces are slow. It turns out that it is radically faster to interact with a screen, where you can scan and tick off familiar options very quickly, without waiting for a voice to read out every single option. Anyone who has dealt with an IVR system (that annoying voice that says "Press 1 for technical support…”) knows that this can be tedious. A future interface would allow input by voice, through a computer, a touch screen or any other input.
So what does this mean for lawyers?
While our Alexa lawyer has not yet passed the Turing Test, we can see a near future where lawyers are working with AI staff members. The AI staff members will support the lawyer, work closely with them and even make calls for the lawyer – and the client might not know whether they are talking to a computer, or a human.
For senior lawyers, this is an opportunity and a threat. In the future, those that work with the robots are the ones that will thrive as they find efficiencies and better ways to serve their clients. For them, there’s opportunity in spending more time with clients and demonstrating empathy, a skill that computers are a long way from having, instead of spending their time hacking away in Microsoft Word. Technology becomes a competitive advantage that law firms will have to either embrace, lest they be left behind.
For junior lawyers, this a real threat. Many junior lawyers cut their teeth in law firms doing volumous, process-driven work. These tasks, like document discovery and legal drafting, are ideal candidates for automation. So the question is: What will the junior lawyers of the future do? Surprisingly, some will actually advance to a senior level or running their own practice faster then past generations, as they leverage technology and AI in lieu of a team of humans to learn from.
One way or another, the implication is clear. Next time you speak to a lawyer – just double check it’s a human.
If you’d like to see more about Smarter Drafter’s Virtual Lawyer for Amazon Alexa, visit SmarterDrafter.com.au/Alexa
About the Author
Adam Long is the CEO of Smarter Drafter, a legal-tech startup with an AI lawyer that’s now used in hundreds of law firms. He’s also a Director of Conscious Step, a charitable sock brand which he co-founded. Conscious Step has planted more than 80,000 trees and provided more than 25,000 meals to refugees. Previously Adam scaled a marketing agency from 4 to 40 staff, and sat on the Board of Engineers Without Borders, Australia. He’s also a World Economic Forum Global Shaper, prefers cats over dogs, and has an unusual interest in cloudspotting.