AI & Law: Deskilling Of Lawyers

AI might inadvertently end-up deskilling human lawyers

by Dr. Lance B. Eliot

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Key briefing points about this article:

  • Attorneys are expected to provide topnotch legal acumen and serve their clients sufficiently
  • Some are worried that the emergence of AI in the law will cause a deskilling of lawyers
  • Attorneys will be able to rely upon AI-based legal reasoning systems for legal advisement
  • The crutch of using AI could lead to a deskilling of human lawyers
  • One viewpoint is that this is a futuristic concern, others see it as close-in and discomforting


Attorneys are expected to always be providing the best possible legal advice and topnotch legal acumen, doing so not simply due to some altruistic quest but to equally ensure they are aiding their clients sufficiently and properly, plus warranting that they are abiding by the esteemed code-of-conduct required of licensed practitioners of the law.

Is it realistic to always be at the top of your game? You might remember that in the movie Top Gun (spoiler alert), Tom Cruise loses his swagger and no longer seems to feel the need, the need for speed, in terms of being at the top of his game.

Could lawyers inexorably and ultimately lose their edge?

Some are asserting that indeed this will be the case, coming about due to the advent of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the law. This gloomy future for human attorneys is based on the presumption that the use of AI will increasingly take on the mental machinations involved in legal reasoning and be able to perform legal tasks as ably as human lawyers, perhaps even better so.

The most extreme version entails the wholescale and utter replacement of human lawyers altogether.

Once AI has reached the pinnacle state of being able to fully and autonomously perform AI Legal Reasoning (AILR), the days of human attorneys being needed are ruefully numbered. AI would presumably be available 24x7 to dispense bona fide legal advice and be had at the touch of one’s fingertips on a computer keyboard or by speaking to an Alex or Siri equivalent. No hassle to find or access true legal advice.

Perhaps the cost too would be less than that of human barristers.

Some emphasize an era of frictionless online access to always-on legal advice at pennies on the dollar versus the more arduous access to find and interact with human attorneys, along with no longer having to deal with the vagaries of human foibles and everyday annoyances of human interaction (ouch, that’s a piercing and insolent attack, for sure).

Before you give up your law degree and legal standing, please know that this kind of AI containing legal expertise of a sentient capacity is a long way from where things stand today. There is a high hurdle involved in replicating the cognitive capacities of legal reasoning into a computer-based system and no silver bullet or magic wand has appeared on the horizon to do so.

For details about the latest pace and trends of AI and legal reasoning, see my book entitled “AI and Legal Reasoning Essentials” at this link here:

Let’s then momentarily agree that the doomsday predictions of AI embodying fully autonomous legal reasoning is a moonshot (or maybe akin to living on Mars) and not worthy of staying awake right now worrying about it.

Deskilling Takes Top Billing

Do not though breathe an excessive sigh of relief since this ominous woodland still hides predatory apprehensions.

Instead of getting caught up in the vision of a world in which AI is fully autonomous and can perform entirely fluent legal reasoning, consider what it might mean as the legal field gradually rotates in that direction. Some suggest that as more and more e-Discovery tools are embellished via AI, and as contract generation tools become boosted by AI-enablement, and so on, there will be a gradual and at times imperceptible deskilling of human lawyers.

Yes, the qualm is that human lawyers will allow their lawyering skills to decay and diminish, becoming reliant on advanced LegalTech that will do much of the heavy legal lifting for them. An indirect and presumably adverse consequence of adopting AI-augmented legal tools will be that the human attorneys essentially practice less and less law per se, at least in terms of using their own minds.

Ironically, attorneys might end-up tackling more legal cases at faster speeds and impressively up their productivity, but meanwhile, they are silently and (perhaps unknowingly) deskilling themselves.

Note that this will not happen overnight.

There isn’t a sudden burst of bright light that warns us of the deskilling amidst lawyers. It is instead a slow death of a thousand gradual knowledge-reducing cuts. Inch by inch, law by law, as AI is infused into LegalTech, and as human lawyers use that LegalTech, the human legal mind will weaken and no longer feel the need all told, as in the need for being on top of the law and nor at the top of their legal game.

AI-powered LegalTech becomes a veritable Trojan horse.

The AI-based LegalTech systems will march triumphantly into law offices, while at the same time out-the-door goes the legal mental prowess of the firm’s attorneys and legal paraprofessionals. AI is the ultimate deskilling machine, but it doesn’t have any stern warning labels to proffer the necessary precautions and awareness thereof.

Before a semblance of despair overtakes your legal beagle talents, please do not toss in the towel on this matter.

A strong counterargument to the deskilling narrative is that the augmenting of human lawyering with AI-enabled tools will be more akin to arming attorneys with word processing and spreadsheets, namely boosting their legal wrangling acumen. Human attorneys will be able to focus their attention on the tougher acts of doing earnest probing and mental legal chess-playing entailing complex legal analyses, leaving the mundane law-related activities to the AI.

The analogy often given is that the AI-powered LegalTech is akin to giving someone a souped-up backhoe or some likened tool. The human no longer does the backbreaking ordinary work and instead can concentrate on grander mental facets.

Part of the basis for believing in this counterargument is exemplified by today’s legal tools. It would seem misguided to argue that the use of online legal databases has undermined legal mental acuity. The same goes for all the other variants of LegalTech that presently exist. In fact, the argument could be made that these computer-based tools have allowed legal minds to soar further than ever, doing so by readily enabling savvy access to large stores of legal information and relieving attorneys of getting bogged down in energy-sapping random searches.

In that sense, perhaps AI-enabled LegalTech will upskill human lawyers rather than deskill them.

So, which is it going to be, the vaunted upskilling or the feared deskilling?

Some assert that there will be a cat and mouse gambit of the human attorneys getting better at the law, meanwhile, the AI is getting better too. Eventually, the AI will get so good that human attorneys will no longer be needed. The human lawyers inadvertently aided the advancement of the very thing that in the end replaced them.

Nothing stings more than working yourself out of a job and a career.


Do not despair since that’s a presumed worry for a far-future generation of human lawyers. Thus, you can proceed undeterred and maybe hope that the promise of autonomous AI legal reasoning will either never happen or that humankind, by then, will have across-the-board advanced such that we will all no longer be working in any kind of occupation or labor. Our lives will have shifted instead to an idyllic existence of pure leisure while the AI does all real-world work for us.

Well, maybe, but meanwhile don’t give up your day job just yet.

About the Author

Dr. Lance Eliot is the Chief AI scientist at Techbrium Inc. and a Stanford Fellow at the Stanford University CodeX Center for Legal Informatics of the Stanford Law School, formerly was a professor of USC, serves currently as a Forbes contributor, and his most recent book is on AI and Law, entitled “AI and Legal Reasoning Essentials. He can be reached at

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Copyright © 2020 Dr. Lance Eliot. All Rights Reserved.

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