Automation isn't the end

09 February 2016

There is something almost apocalyptic about the idea that technology will spell “the end of lawyers”, so it is comforting that research suggests that the near future will be more about the automation of activities than the replacement of entire professions.

However, lawyers should start thinking now about the technology that is available to improve their work processes and the project management capabilities that will support this.

All predictions of doom, from the biblical end times, Y2K bug panic and Susskind’s “The End of Lawyers?” indulge the human fondness for the apocalypse narrative. In a 2011 New Scientist article titled “The end is always nigh in the human mind”, the popularity of this narrative is ascribed to several cognitive processes, including the way the human mind seeks patterns based on the passing of time and because apocalyptic visions help us to make sense of a senseless world.

However, the apocalypse narrative also encourages disengagement – it focuses on the idea that change is always just over the horizon but when it comes, it will be sudden, catastrophic and all out of our control. It stops us from imagining opportunities to implement incremental changes and improve the way we work today.

Pushing back on the idea of an upcoming apocalypse for professional services, interim findings from research by the McKinsey Global Institute highlight that very few occupations will be automated in their entirety in the near or medium term future. However, benefits of automation and technology are realisable today.  As many as 45 percent of the activities that individuals are paid to perform can be automated by adapting currently demonstrated technologies. Automation will significantly redefine job definitions and restructure business processes in the short to medium term. How do we prepare for this?

For individual lawyers, perhaps soon it won’t be enough to know how to turn on a computer and process a Word document. Instead, they might need a deeper understanding of how computers work and how technology can be used to improve work processes. Basic tasks can be automated now. Microsoft Word's regular expressions function can be used to automatically list all document references that follow a pattern from within a document. More advanced regular expressions and scripting languages can quickly remove duplicates and order large amounts of information from documents whilst reducing the risk of human error.

At the team level, harnessing technology will require a more involved project management culture and more effective project management tools. The teams of the future will be multi-disciplinary and will not necessarily solve all their problems by spending more time looking for answers. Hybrid teams need effective tools to efficiently divide up work, capture ideas and discussions, consolidate key information and monitor progress. Other industries are already using innovative and creative solutions to make this happen.

Technology and robots are not going to steal your jobs (at least not yet…), but automating and standardising basic activities and using technology to facilitate collaboration and manage projects can already help professionals work more efficiently and deliver more value to their clients.


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Above: Pulling out all the document references in a report can be accomplished in as little as four lines of code, rather than hours of copying and pasting.


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