I talk to a lot of groups, large and small, about the impact of technology on work as we know it. But rarely have I had as great an introduction as last week when I was invited to speak to the in-house legal team at one of our major energy suppliers.

I was preceded by Tim Harkness, a partner in Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, a lawyer who really understands the impact that technology will have on the legal profession. He was an amusing and engaging speaker as well, which is a real bonus!

He started by reviewing the impact of technology with some startling quotes. “In 2006 we probably had 60 contract attorneys working on second request matters at any one time”, Tim said. “Today that figure is 12 or fewer attorneys, working on much greater document volume. And the reason for the decline is predictive coding and other electronic review protocols.”

The important point here is not that at least 48 contract attorneys have been replaced by machines to save money (though it undoubtedly has), but that the machines are better at the job than the humans. Not only are they better but they are faster.

Now it’s easy to look at this and think this is automation of fairly straightforward work. But Tim was talking about work that would have been done by junior attorneys – though we can comfort ourselves with the fact that the humans are still doing the smart work.  Or can we?

A recent press release from Hitachi describes how they are working to create an environment where humans and AI mutually cooperate to continuously raise efficiency.

The really interesting fact here is not that we have computers helping humans to do their work more effectively – that happens all the time – but that the computers are in charge.

The computers are using big data to analyse work and then issue orders in the same way that the old fashioned managers used to.

So the computer is doing the smart work and the human operators re being issued with orders. I imagine it will not be long before the human operators are being replaced by robots as that would significantly improve the process.

I’m about to publish a White Paper on the impact of new technology in the workplace. Only 20% of respondents thought managerial jobs would be lost and a tiny number thought leadership roles would disappear.

I carried out the research because I am so concerned how few directors really understand what is happening in the world or even in their own businesses and are certainly not managing the big picture. But even I was shocked at quite how bad the issue is.

And yet we have evidence everywhere that jobs are being replaced by intelligent automation. This process will only speed up and it won’t just be manual and administrative jobs that are lost.

Intelligent automation is as intelligent – or even more intelligent – than humans, and it has all the benefits of being able to work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The implications for managerial jobs are very real.

What computers are not yet able to do is to be empathetic, and to provide the human interface that we humans need. They also, so far, are not able to do what humans do which is to apply wisdom and intuition. So those leadership jobs are probably safe for a while, as are all the jobs that do require a human interface.

In the meantime, there are very real challenges for both law firms and law teams. Here I throw out just a few that come to mind

  • If you are automating so much, what is your recruitment plan for the next three years?
  • If you don’t need as many junior and qualified lawyers, will you have enough of a pool from which to develop your senior lawyers? You may well need more senior people – so do you need to think of new ways (you and other law firms/organisations) to develop senior legal skills?
  • If you are a law firm, what impact will this structural change – of having fewer junior people – have on your profitability model?
  • Do your lawyers understand what is happening with new technologies and the impact on employment and commercial contracts?

Are you already tackling these issues – could you share your thinking and learning with us?