ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Now it's time for All Tech Considered...
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SIEGEL: ...And the next installment in our occasional series, Is My Job Safe? With advances in artificial intelligence and robotics, more people are asking that question. Asma Khalid of member station WBUR looks at how AI is changing how lawyers work.
ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Shannon Capone Kirk runs the e-discovery practice at Ropes & Gray. It's a prestigious law firm with panoramic views of the Boston skyline. In order to understand what she does, you've got to understand what life was like when she was just starting out as a lawyer in the late '90s. Her first job was document review.
SHANNON CAPONE KIRK: What that meant was literally spending weeks upon weeks in either a warehouse or a conference room flipping through banker's boxes and reading documents, paper documents.
KHALID: Kirk says every big corporate law firm used an army of first-year law grads for this manual labor.
KIRK: And if we found something that was relevant to the litigation, we would tag it with Post-it notes. And that was it. That was how archaic it was.
KHALID: It was time-consuming and expensive, so Kirk says firms began to use software. And in the last few years, the algorithms have gotten more sophisticated and more popular. It's not just search terms. It's the machine learning how to prioritize what documents a lawyer finds relevant. The job of a corporate lawyer is changing. And Kirk says it's not just 'cause of technology.
KIRK: Part of it is the technology. But the other part of it is the industry now has numerous options for contract attorneys.
KHALID: In law, there are two simultaneous trends going on - tech and outsourcing. Gabe Teninbaum teaches a class at Suffolk Law School in Boston called Lawyering in the Age of Smart Machines (ph). He says we're nowhere near the death of lawyering, but some legal work will go away forever.
GABE TENINBAUM: There are some entire areas of law where basically the whole practice area could be automated. Any time there's legal work that is easily repeatable - in other words, wills, trusts, residential real estate closing.
KHALID: And Teninbaum says he's already seeing this. He points to LegalZoom, the tech company that charges a fraction of what a traditional law practice would. By the way, LegalZoom is an NPR sponsor.
TENINBAUM: Over time, you'll see continued sort of erosion of traditional legal jobs with technical jobs.
KHALID: Like creating automated contracts. Think TurboTax.
TENINBAUM: The same way that you or I might use software at the end of the year to fill out our taxes and create a tax return in just a few minutes for just a few dollars, we can do that with legal forms.
KHALID: Teninbaum says this is the new frontier for law. Automation allows lawyers to take on more cases for less money. And firms don't need to hire as many employees. Instead, they can use contract attorneys like Kellie Tiller. She sifts through legal documents on a computer for hours doing e-discovery. It's a job that requires a lot of patience.
KELLIE TILLER: Just your tolerance for being able to sit and continuously look at a computer screen where sometimes the words may or may not blend together 'cause you feel like you've seen the same two or three sentences over and over and over again.
KHALID: She's making less than $30 an hour. A law firm attorney would have charged a couple hundred dollars for this same work. Tiller is 34 and admits this work was not what she had envisioned for herself, but...
TILLER: For me, what it means is an opportunity to break into the legal profession. As we know, residual bills, they don't stop because we aren't employed.
KHALID: Tiller isn't scared by the technology. In fact, she says it'll likely make her work more efficient. Plus, she just started a new gig as a public defender. Tiller's story supports an idea people often bring up, a sort of possible silver lining in this shifting job market, the idea that as private law firm jobs dwindle, more lawyers may enter public service. For NPR News, I'm Asma Khalid.
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