Artificial Intelligence Will Not Replace Attorneys Anytime Soon

By Branden Stein

The hype surrounding developments in artificial intelligence includes suggestions that attorneys will find themselves out of a job because they were replaced by a ruthless machine that never sleeps.  The implication is a scene something like this:

“Webster, write me the summary judgment brief for the ABC Corp. matter.”  A speaker on a senior attorney’s desk replies, “I anticipated your request, so it is already done.  I emailed it to you yesterday.”  Delighted, but not surprised, the user issues a new command, “Great, file it!”  With narrowed eyes the senior attorney then turns to an associate and says, “You’re fired.”

Good reasons exist to be skeptical.  IBM said, “machines should work; people should think.”  Today attorneys are surrounded by machines that liberate them from toil, to focus on tasks with higher marginal return.  Hours once spent in a law library can be otherwise allocated.  Nobody yearns for all the jobs that machines are doing.  That is because, seeing the present world, we realize that offloading parts of that work to technology made us more productive.

Seasoned attorneys have heard these stories before.  They have watched as computers revolutionized legal research and tool-assisted review has made massive document review projects less burdensome.  Email and telephonic communication have become ubiquitous, and the advent of video conferencing in recent years is still fresh in our memories.  At each of these stages, predictions were made that the technologies would permanently reshape the practice of law.  That has not turned out to be accurate, most recently with respect to remote work.  Though these technologies have added convenience and efficiency, by in large the practice of law is fundamentally no different.

What has changed is increases to efficiency make attorneys capable of providing more units of attorney work per lawyer per year.  This means they should be able to take on matters they previously could not by billing the same or higher hourly rates but spending fewer hours on the same task and completing more tasks in a given time.  Firms and in-house counsel are going to need attorneys to do that work.  Why stop hiring them when lawyers can be more productive than ever—only to let them go work for a competitor?

The kind of scenario described at the outset of this article often portrays lawyers as rote information processing drones—when the reality is quite different.  Legal work is messy, complicated, and often adversarial.  In other words, it involves noisy data sets.  In the realm of litigation, opposing counsel (who will have the same technology) actively try to thwart even the best-laid plans.  Good attorneys are adept at triaging problems and managing relationships.  Persuasive writing is an exercise in empathy with the audience, anticipating the thought process and emotions of the reader.

These are not things computers are good at handling.  Recently a group of radiologists outperformed artificial intelligence in diagnosing diseases.[1]  One wise doctor said of the study, “At best, AI augments human skills in a complementary fashion . . . To view AI and human capability as mutually exclusive will always lead to disappointing results.”

The same is true for lawyers—it is a tool to be used in concert with an attorney.  Artificial intelligence models may not ever become significantly better at these things.  The most sophisticated and cutting-edge artificial intelligence systems can actually “hallucinate” or get worse over time as more data is fed into them.[2]  This is the “garbage-in-garbage-out” problem, and it means artificial intelligence will always need attorneys.

People imagine technology marching forward eternally and uniformly.  The truth is that plenty of precedent for these kinds of technological plateaus exists due to real world limitations.  For example, air travel has not appreciably improved in decades, nor has Microsoft Word.  That is not because nobody is working on these things—improvements are very difficult and costly.

Technology may of course make some jobs obsolete.  Spam phone calls once dialed with human hands are now made by machines armed with recordings.  But if you stay on the line, they still transfer you to a live person.  If those people have not been replaced by a robot, then I am not betting against the lawyers, either.

This article was originally published in November 2023 by, St. Louis Business Journal, St. Louis Construction Forum, Missouri Lawyers Weekly, and Illinois Business Journal.

Branden Stein is an attorney at Carmody MacDonald P.C. in St. Louis, Missouri. He focuses his practice on business litigation. He can be reached at [email protected] or 314-854-8789.

This article is for informational purposes only. Nothing herein should be treated as legal advice or as creating an attorney-client relationship. The choice of a lawyer is an important decision and should not be based solely upon advertisements.