10 December 2019

Research highlights AI threat to UK legal profession

Four per cent decline in lawyers by 2027 predicted if AI take up is faster than expected

London calling: international investment on the up

The deployment of artificial intelligence (AI) and other advanced technologies could trigger a four per cent decline in the number of lawyers in England and Wales by 2027, according to a new report. The study warns AI could halt the historic year-on-year growth in the number of lawyers in its tracks, with the profession shrinking by 7,000 lawyers to 169,200 when compared to 2017.

However, the decline would only happen if AI take-up was even faster than predicted.

Small increase

The report’s baseline findings are that the number of lawyers is likely to rise by a modest two per cent over the period, although overall employment in the sector will fall by four per cent thanks to a sharp decline in the number of legal secretaries and other office support staff as their roles are taken over by technology.

The report notes: “In 1998 there were two legal professionals to one legal secretary, and the ratio was one to one when adding in other office support staff, but by 2017 the ratios had increased to five legal professionals per legal secretary, and two legal professionals for every secretary or other office support worker. 

“In 2027, there are projected to be around 20 legal professionals per legal secretary, and five legal professionals for every secretary or other office support worker. Thus the role of legal secretary is projected to largely vanish over the coming decade.”

Skills shortage

The report also highlights a potential skills shortage, with the number of entrants to the profession failing to keep pace with demand, albeit by a small number.

“Employers may need to engage more with higher education to encourage graduates into the sector and profession, and consider enhancing career development opportunities from legal associate professional roles, to increase the flow of entrants to meet their likely demands,” the report advises.

Future planning

The research was conducted by the Institute for Employment Studies and was based on data up to 2018. It was commissioned as part of a project by the Law Society to help law firms and other organisations plan for the future.

A report by the Washington, DC-based think tank Brookings, which was published last month, warned that, unlike with other advanced technologies, legal professionals would be particularly impacted by AI, along with other highly skilled workers.

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