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The Three Laws of Legal Robotics

In the 1940s writer and futurologist Isaac Asimov laid down his Three Laws of Robotics. We say it’s time for lawyers to do the same. A flourishing future is ours for the taking, provided we know how to grasp it.

At Shoosmiths, we’ve been working on future-facing projects for a good few years now. We’ve rolled up our sleeves and got our hands dirty: from creating and teaching our AI-powered contract review tool, Cia®, to building a game-changing matter management tool for in-house legal teams from scratch (Matters+ : ‘built by lawyers for lawyers’).

As you’d expect, we’ve had our ups and downs, and our share of mistakes and triumphs. We’ve seized opportunities and possibly missed a few too. Although the odd aspect of these projects has fizzled into glorious obscurity, marked down with the inevitable ‘well, that tweak seemed like a good idea at the time’, most of what we’ve done has worked far better than we ever could have imagined. In other words: the usual twists, turns, bumps and scrapes of a legal working life. In the end, we like the destination we’ve arrived at to date. And our clients tell us they like it too.

We’ve also had time to reflect. The result? We’ve talked a lot about what we’ve done. We’ve given webinars and seminars and attended plenty of them too. We’ve read lots about new technologies and the law, and written about how it has worked out for us and our clients.

We’ve also thought long and hard about what our hopes and aspirations are for the profession as we enter an exciting, and often daunting, time of significant change. And we have no doubt legaltech will be a key part of this change. We’re keen to see a profession in which we all thrive. We like a bit of competition: it keeps us on our toes and the winners, in the end, are our clients and society in general. We have a lot to learn from each other.

Azimov wrote his Three Laws of Robotics when he was 21 years old. Almost 40 years later, he said the laws were ‘obvious from the start, and everyone is aware of them subliminally. The Laws just never happened to be put into brief sentences until I managed to do the job.’ It strikes us that no one has yet ‘done the job’ for the legal profession: what are the three laws we need to be aware of as we navigate the change that is all around us. Where do we go from here? And how?

In our view, we need ‘The Three Laws of Legal Robotics’, These are:

  • tech will not replace lawyers, but lawyers who use tech will replace those who don’t
  • lawyers who act like robots will be replaced by robots
  • lawyers who combine tech and EQ will thrive above all

These laws remind us of the importance of new technologies, but they also concentrate on the vital human side of what we do.

Let’s briefly examine each in turn:

First law: tech will not replace lawyers, but lawyers who use tech will replace those who don’t

Lawyers aren’t turkeys voting for Christmas when they use technology. Christmas is going to happen anyway, whether or not the turkeys vote. The key? Concentrate on not being a turkey. You only have to look at the technology all around us from our mobile phones to our smart speakers at home, from artificial intelligence to big data to see how it is changing almost every aspect of our home and working lives. The upshot? Embrace technology. We did so when hand-typed letters morphed into emails and yellowing fax paper was transformed into pdfs. Even bigger change is on its way. In 2020 a survey by Wolters Kluwer found that 76% of legal professionals said that the increasing importance of legaltech will be the trend that will affect their businesses over the next three years and yet only 28% were ready. Many aspects of legal work are likely be replaced by tech, but a lot won’t. It’s time, we think, to step up and become truly tech-savvy as a profession. If we don’t, someone else may well step into our sector and start to do our work, and it’s likely to be in a way we won’t like.

Second law: lawyers who act like robots will be replaced by robots

Many ‘robots’ don’t look like robots. That self-checkout machine in your local supermarket? That’s a robot. Admittedly, it’s a very inoffensive looking one—and it’s unlikely to feature in any Terminator-style Hollywood films anytime soon—but it’s a robot all the same. ATMs have replaced many bank clerks. Automated calls have replaced many phone operators. Any task that is repetitive and monotonous is a strong candidate for some form of technological change. The solution? We need to future-proof our careers by turbocharging our EQs. Competing against data-hungry, hyper-efficient computers is a non-starter. We need to continue to do what robots can’t do, such as offering creative and imaginative solutions or being the rock to our clients during difficult times. We need to make the most of the fact we have emotions.

Third law: lawyers who combine tech and EQ will thrive above all

 Good tech is about people and tech, not people or tech. In the future lawyers who know how to use their EQ skills, together with the right tech, will flourish. Kevin Roose, tech columnist at the New York Times, notes in his recent book Futureproof, ‘good lawyers will become more like legal therapists—creating trust with clients and helping to solve their problems, rather than simply writing briefs and doing research’. We agree. Visiting a lawyer is often a distress purchase. Like visiting a dentist, the ones who smile and put their clients at ease will succeed over those who make it as painful and unpleasant as possible, even if the latter are sometimes cheaper. Legal ‘bedside manner’ will grow in importance. As Steve Jobs once noted, ‘technology alone is not enough…It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that make our hearts sing’.

With these three laws, we believe now is a time for great optimism. Together, EQ-powered lawyers and AI-powered tech will transform how we practise law.

Rarely has there been such an exciting time to be a lawyer.


N.B. This article was previously published by The Lawyer on 29 July 2021.


This information is for educational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. It is recommended that specific professional advice is sought before acting on any of the information given. © Shoosmiths LLP 2022.


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