To put fuel in the fire of any conspiracy theorist or technophobe, we’re having to evaluate if AI poses yet another threat. Yet, this time it isn’t truck drivers, retail assistants or other blue collar workers that may lose their job – it’s the highly educated profession of law.

The driving force behind this concern is because online legal companies are offering services without the need for a lawyer. In fact, in some cases these aren’t even law companies offering online services – they’re tech startups that have temporarily hired lawyers to help create some online products.

The best example of this can be found in will creation – as there are floods of new websites claiming they can create wills in an automated way without the need for human intervention.

The two questions we have to ask is: are these wills as legitimate as the ones created by lawyers? And, can they offer everything that a lawyer can offer?

Before looking at these questions, let’s first establish the supposed benefits of AI-driven legal services under the assumption that they are legitimate.

Benefits of AI legal services

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In the digital age, many people would prefer to buy their products and services online – and this has never been more true in lockdown. Very few will claim they’re looking forward to a trip to the legal office in town, and so receiving these services online are appealing.

Of course, the biggest cost involved when purchasing legal services are derived from the labour costs. Legal professionals are paid well for the lengthy and difficult education that they complete, and the experience so far in their career. If AI can replicate this, then this would surely be an extremely low-cost way to facilitate legal services.

This is certainly evident when browsing legal service websites. Costs can be up to 10 times cheaper than going to a lawyer. Of course, it’s not just the savings, but the time and convenience of being able to do this online. From a smartphone, users can create legal documents within 10 minutes as opposed to a 2 hour conversation with a lawyer. But, is the resulting service the same?

Are automated online legal services legitimate?

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The answer to the first question is yes and no. According to onlinewillmakers.com, creating a will without a lawyer is questionable, but it’s undeniably true that buying a will at a recognised and highly regarded will creation website can return a legitimate will. One that will transfer ownership of estates in the exact way they were intended.

Being created from an online form by lawyers in the first place, users can fill in answers to the jargon-free questions and in under half an hour, have a will. These wills aren’t illegitimate in a pure sense, as the requirements that make a will to be legitimate are fairly minimal.

However, the issue comes when they’re contested in court. For example, if the will was disputed by an ex-lover or distant relative, there’s no denying that a will created by a lawyer could hold more weight.

Not only because a real-life lawyer was a witness and helped in the creation of the will, but because they will have likely figured out if there’s a risk of such a dispute by asking questions around family. Thus, if a lawyer senses there’s a danger of this, they can be more explicit and nuanced in the will creation to make the will water-tight. The value of a 2 hour conversation is thus important for many reasons.

The same goes for complicated estates. Perhaps the customer owns an overseas company and has various children they want to leave it to. The more bespoke the situation, the less automation can cater to it.

So, buying a will online is legitimate, but not as legitimate, as one created in person with a lawyer.

Can automated legal services offer everything a lawyer can?

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Evidently, the answer to this question was in the above – automated legal services are repeatable and lacking in nuance. If the customer has very basic needs and a simple legal service (such as a simple document) they need to be carried out, an online service will often suffice – and yield the benefit of being much cheaper, faster, and more convenient.

However, matters of complicated estates, messy divorces, and intricate custody cases will not be replaced anytime soon by AI. This is comparable to the situation of a customer assistant in a shop – machines can complete the tasks of inventory control and payment processing, but it cannot yet talk to the customer about how their day has been and why a product may help your specific circumstance.

Smart contracts

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Smart contracts use blockchain technology to create digital agreements that are automatically executed when certain programmable conditions are met. In other words, if you wanted to wager with a friend that tomorrow will be sunny or rainy, then you place funds in this blockchain escrow and deliver them based on written code – code that perhaps searches for the weather using an API or scrapes such information from the web.

Once the condition is met (i.e. one person wins the wager), the funds are automatically sent and nothing can interrupt or amend this. The funds being delivered are protected from greed, distrust and manipulation.

This technology is in the early stages of being used within law. Whether it’s claims, disputes, operational delays, payment delays, or promising payment upon delivering a product or service – these are some of the legal agreements that can be enforced by smart contracts.

The biggest appeal of smart contracts is that the contract is placed in the hands of blockchain technology – which cannot be interrupted or lose autonomy. The redundancy of intermediaries would be a huge cost-saver.

These aren’t like the automated legal services above either. These can be bespoke and adhere to unique circumstances (though this refers to subtleties in agreements, not necessarily convoluted results). However, they of course pose their own risks – risks that lawyers do not have. The first risk is that they currently have weak legal regulations – this is a brand new field that is not yet credibly established. Secondly, the programs – which are dependent on programmers to create – are exposed to bugs and possible cyber attacks.

We are yet to see how smart contracts can scale, both in terms of its blockchain technology and also the industry itself. However, we may begin to see a liaison of the two worlds, in which programmers and lawyers work together to create smart contracts.

What we do know, is none of the technology or scenarios presented thus far are self-sufficient or sophisticated enough to pose an existential threat to the legal profession. Whilst there is a threat from technology in offering cheaper document-making and basic legal services, we will find customers keep coming back to lawyers when issues or complicated agreements arise.

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