Every so often, somebody tweets about how robots and computers will replace a bunch of jobs. This is, for many jobs, undoubtedly true. It is almost inevitable that industry will use technology to become even more Borg-like in its assimilation of labour. Anything it can replace, it will. And anything it can’t replace, it will destroy and exchange with something that it can replace.
And every so often, somebody tweets that this is what will happen to lawyers. These people are wrong. Lawyers are forever.
Let’s start without controversy. Computers (that is, symbol processors) are incapable of meaning. Meaning is something that minds do and computers, no matter how fast or advanced, will never be able to capture meaning. The Chinese Room does not actually understand Chinese.
Law is necessarily about meaning. We talk about statutory intent. We talk about parliamentary will. Law is about taking rules and applying their meaning to a wide range of activities.
So if computers are necessarily incapable of meaning and law is meaning, then computers are necessarily incapable of doing law. Thus, lawyers are safe.
‘But!’ you might cry, ‘How much of a lawyer’s work is actually about meaning? Haven’t you seen that app that lets you appeal parking infringements?’
You navigate most of your legal world without the guidance of a lawyer. When you buy milk at the supermarket, you’ve encountered a few different legal frameworks (most basically: contract) without having to call a lawyer. Law students will fill out their Centrelink forms and apply for HECS long before they understand the significance of those documents.
Conversely, there is a lot of administrative work that lawyers do that could be automated. How much brain activity does a contract really need? How much brain activity does a simple filing of documents require?
Technology will allow (and is allowing) a lot of people to self-service a large amount of their legal needs. But when things get really hairy, you’re going to need more than C-3PO to negotiate. You’re going to need somebody who can engage with legal meaning and who can balance the competing ideas that sit at the heart of law.
This will be pretty good for everybody in the long run. Lawyers will be able to direct their energies to work that matters, rather than being swamped with dredge work, and the cost of services to people will reduce (because they will be able to self-service more).
But lets say the Borg-fetishists and robosexuals are right and computers and machines take over so much legal work that lawyers become practically scarce. This creates even more of a two-tiered legal system: those who can afford lawyers who can argue complex areas of meaning and those who can only afford the free app that uploads all your data to a Russian server. Although people will be accessing more affordable legal services, they are less likely to be accessing good quality advice. This will only be in the interest of States and the wealthy.
Lawyers are safe. Scientists, on the other hand…