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From Post-it Notes To Algorithms: How Automation Is Changing Legal Work

Shannon Capone Kirk at the offices of Ropes & Gray in Boston. While document review used to be tedious work for lawyers, Kirk says they can now sift through gigabytes of data within days with the help of artificial intelligence.
Jesse Costa
Shannon Capone Kirk at the offices of Ropes & Gray in Boston. While document review used to be tedious work for lawyers, Kirk says they can now sift through gigabytes of data within days with the help of artificial intelligence.

This is part of an occasional series: Is My Job Safe? These stories look at jobs that might be at risk because of technology and automation.

Shannon Capone Kirk's first job as a young lawyer in the late '90s was "document review."

It meant "spending weeks upon weeks in either a warehouse or a conference room flipping through bankers boxes and reading paper documents," says Kirk, who now runs the electronic legal research practice, known as e-discovery, at Ropes & Gray in Boston.

The process was time-consuming and expensive.

"If we found something that was relevant to the litigation, we would tag it with Post-it notes," Kirk says. "That was how archaic it was."

But, like many routine tasks, document review with human hands is disappearing.

Nowadays, lawyers at top firms only spend about 4 percent of their time on document review, according to Frank Levy, a longtime MIT labor economist and co-author of the paper "Can Robots Be Lawyers?"

Levy's research found that current technology is replacing roughly 2 percent of a lawyer's total workload each year. That might sound small, but Levy insists you need to put it in perspective.

"In the last seven or eight years, [demand for legal services] has been pretty flat," he says. "And so that 2 percent a year really has some bite."

And as the market has tightened, fewer people have been applying to law school.

From 2005 to 2015, law school applications across the country fell by roughly 40 percent, according to data from the American Bar Association.

A major reason law firms aren't hiring as many graduates as they once did is because of technology, but it's not the whole story. "The other part of it is the industry now has numerous options for contract attorneys and outsourcing," Kirk says.

The software revolution

In the early-to-mid 2000s, technology began to nibble away at certain legal tasks, as law firms experimented with software that could streamline the document review process.

Law firms would collect gigabytes of data, put it into a review platform, and then ask lawyers to run search terms. With time, the algorithms became more popular and more sophisticated.

Humans still set the parameters. But computers whittle down those millions of documents.

"Gone are the days when you would staff 50 to 75 first- and second-year associates to a document review. That just does not happen anymore," Kirk says.

Life as a contract attorney

When Kellie Tiller, 34, graduated from the Massachusetts School of Law, a small freestanding law school north of Boston, she had student loans and needed a job. For the past couple of years, Tiller has worked on and off as a contract attorney doing e-discovery.

It requires a lot of patience, she says. "Just your tolerance for being able to sit and continuously look at a computer screen where ... you feel like you've seen the same two or three sentences over and over and over again."

Tiller was paid less than $30 an hour. A law firm attorney would have charged a couple hundred dollars for the same work.

But for Tiller it was a chance to break into the legal profession. She recently left that contract work for a new job as a public defender. And that points to a possible silver lining to this shifting job market — the idea that as private law firm jobs dwindle, more lawyers may enter public service.

Teaching law students to survive in an automated world

The next evolutionary frontier is automated contracts, says Gabe Teninbaum, a professor at Suffolk Law School. He teaches a class called "Lawyering in the Age of Smart Machines."

"The same way that you or I might use software at the end of the year to fill out our taxes and create a tax return in just a few minutes for just a few dollars, we can do that with legal forms," he says.

Automated contracts would allow lawyers to take on more cases for less money, and, in theory, make legal services more affordable and accessible. "Anytime there's legal work that is easily repeatable. In other words — wills, trusts, residential real estate closings," Teninbaum says.

And he says he's already seeing this evolution through companies like LegalZoom, the legal tech company that charges a fraction of what a traditional law practice would. (Note: LegalZoom provides financial support to NPR.)

"Over time, you'll see continued sort of erosion of traditional legal jobs with technical jobs," Teninbaum says. And, he says, these more technical jobs will replace old-school attorneys.

Still, Teninbaum and Levy, the economist, don't think all this means the death of lawyering.

"A job is a bundle of different tasks," Levy says. "Some of them can be automated, and some of them can't."

Copyright 2021 WBUR. To see more, visit WBUR.

Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.