Legal software: Automation could kill lawyers. Why that's good for everyone else.

Will these machines steal your job?
Sept. 29 2011 2:42 AM

Will Robots Steal Your Job?

Software could kill lawyers. Why that's good for everyone else.

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"You'd keep the virtual assembly line moving along—you'd be the maestro moving the stick, in charge of the whole process," Katz says. Not only will automation allow lawyers to escape drudgery, but it will also let them serve more clients. What's more, instead of serving just a handful of high-paying clients, this maestro might be able to use machines to help serve thousands of clients over the Web, providing legal help to those who can't access it today.

If automation brings more people legal services, at lower prices, while also pruning the ranks of human lawyers, I suspect most readers will consider that a win, win, win. And in the long run, this could well be. The trouble is that the path from here to there will be rocky—many firms will be shuttered, an ever-larger number of newly minted young attorneys will fail to find work, and a huge industry's economic prospects will fade.

Still, of all the professions I've covered so far, the prospects for the legal industry seem the least awful. Sure, lawyers will suffer, but the rest of us will benefit. "The law doesn't exist to provide jobs for lawyers," Katz says. "That's not its function in society. It's there to help people solve problems—and if we could serve more people with fewer lawyers, I don't think that's an unreasonable path to take."

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As I'll explain next, I uncovered a similar trend in science. Computers may soon decipher some of the fundamental mysteries of nature. Should we care that they might displace humans in the process?

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.