With the rise of automation in many jobs and the growth of artificial intelligence, many people have been asking themselves whether lawyers are at risk of being replaced by robots. Indeed, there is a robot who has been fighting traffic tickets, and some law firms are using technology for things like document review. But are criminal lawyers at risk of being pushed out?
My answer? Not anytime soon. This reality is that criminal law remains a fundamentally human area of the law, one that relies on advocacy and persuasion, as well as building relationships. When I picture myself meeting with a client to review the disclosure and hear their account of what has lead to their charges, this is not something that can be accomplished by artificial intelligence. It is a practice of experience and empathy, of understanding the underlying context of the allegations and of their life. And then it’s a matter of guiding the client through the steps of the criminal justice system, presenting them with the cases and information needed to make an educated decision as to how to proceed.
And while courts are gradually (read: slowly) increasing their capacity for technology, many trials remain decidedly low-tech. A lot of the time it comes down to the credibility of a witness, well-crafted examinations in chief and cross-examinations and persuasive submissions. A lawyer has to be able to read the room, responding to witnesses and weaving the evidence into a legal argument. And frankly, with the barrage of smart phone notifications and e-mails in everyday life, it can be refreshing to sit at counsel table with my yellow legal pad and be completely absorbed in the words that are being spoken in court.
Now this isn’t to say that technology couldn’t play a bigger role. The legal industry in many respects lags behind. We still use fax machines! So, there are many tasks that I would gladly have done by a so-called robot lawyer. It would be immensely helpful to have technology to parse through thousands of pages of intercepted communications to pull out what is relevant. Self-teaching technology could also improve case law databases to make research more efficient. And from the prosecutor’s perspective, there may well be a role for an algorithm in initially screening files for sentencing positions, based on the general metrics of the offence, the person’s criminal record and other easily discernible facts.
But while technology might be used to augment the practice of criminal law, it simply cannot, in my view, replace it entirely. In fact, it is the human element of criminal law that makes it so interesting and rewarding. The robots can keep their own jobs, I’ll be over here practising criminal law.