If you’ve been watching Mostly Human, the new CNN series on some of the extreme applications of technology, you may be smugly thinking that at least law is immune to such bizarre technological intrusions. But the surge of technological advances in artificial intelligence and the rising incidence of its applications in business is destined to have a major impact on law practice in both the near and far future. The only questions are how much and how soon.

Legal practices have seen how technology has already transformed document review, knowledge management, e-discovery, client relationship management and other aspects of law practice. What is just coming into view is the artificial intelligence capacity that can make inroads into the ranks of the human lawyers using those applications.

In March 2016, a Google computer program thoroughly beat one of the world’s top players in Go, the most complex board game ever created. As an article in Harvard Business Review has pointed out, “IBM’s Watson is already cracking medical cases that stump doctors, and investors are fleeing expensive, actively managed funds for better-performing passive ones. The value of some of our most prized career paths is already being eroded.”

The question in Richard Susskind’s 2010 book The End of Lawyers? was recently answered in his newest book The Future of the Professions: How Technology Will Transform the Work of Human ExpertsThere he predicts that within a few decades “the traditional professions will be dismantled, leaving most (but not all) professionals to be replaced by less expert people and high-performing systems…there will not be sufficient growth in the types of professional tasks in which people, not machines, have the advantage to keep most professionals in full employment.”

Susskind is a British law professor and for years has been the IT Adviser to the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, enjoying a wide following among the techies and consultants who operate in the legal arena. Is he just rattling our cage?

Already “The World’s First Robot Lawyer” is being touted for having processed hundreds of thousands of parking tickets to save clients millions of dollars. Then an important study announced in 2016 that a robot using artificial intelligence reached the same conclusions as judges did in almost 80% of the court cases presented to it, suggesting not only that machines may be able to more accurately predict the outcome of court proceedings than our litigators, but also that at some point a human judge may be unnecessary. A recent book Robots in Law parades all the ways that technology is, depending on your view, either expanding legal avenues or encroaching on human legal turf.

So are we human lawyers destined to become the next elevator operators? Sure, we could use some extra computing capacity, but isn’t there something unique about the dispensing of legal advice that leaves our careers out of reach of the latest robot?

We will address that thought in the next post.

For further insight into the challenges that artificial intelligence brings to the practice of law and how to gain the human advantage, see Muir’s The Emotional Intelligence Edge: A Guide for 21st Century Lawyers due out this summer from the ABA.