Byte of Prevention Blog

by Jay Reeves |

Ready for a Robot Supervisor at Your Firm?

It seems that law firm managers – more so than support staff – should be worried that AI robots are coming for their jobs.

Management by algorithm is fast becoming a thing.

“In all of the worry about the potential of artificial intelligence to replace rank-and-file workers, we may have overlooked the possibility it will replace the bosses, too,” writes Kevin Roose in the New York Times.

Consider, for example, the call center at insurance giant MetLife, where service representatives keep one eye on their computer monitors as they talk with customers. A tiny box in a corner of the screen provides real-time feedback – through words and icons – on how the employee is doing (Talking too fast! Bring more energy!).

Meanwhile, retail businesses are installing in-store sensors to gauge worker productivity, and on-demand services like Uber and Lyft use computers for HR tasks from performance reviews to payroll.

Even so, all of this is a far cry from using a laptop to keep tabs on your legal assistants.

“Management by algorithm is not a new concept,” writes Roose. “But using AI to manage workers in conventional, 9-to-5 jobs has been more controversial. Critics have accused companies of using algorithms for managerial tasks, saying that automated systems can dehumanize and unfairly punish employees. And while it’s clear why executives would want AI that can track everything their workers do, it’s less clear why workers would.”

Big Brother is Watching

Even in gig industries where AI is prevalent, there is pushback to using algorithms – which are often kept invisible to workers – to calculate pay, promotions and work conditions.

“It is surreal to think that any company could fire their own workers without any human involvement,” says Marc Perrone, the president of United Food and Commercial Workers International Union in this statement.

Not to mention the unsettling, Terminatoresque aspect of having a manager that never sleeps, eats or blinks.

“There is a creepy sci-fi vibe to a situation in which AI surveils human workers and tells them how to relate to other humans,” according to the Times. “It is reminiscent of the ‘workplace gamification’ trend that swept through corporate America a decade ago, when companies used psychological tricks borrowed from video games, like badges and leader boards, to try to spur workers to perform better.” Others are even more forceful in condemning algorithm management. One CEO quoted in the Times article feared a “dystopian hellscape” where employees are judged by an “opaque black box.”

MetLife, on the other hand, couldn’t be happier. It says customer satisfaction has risen 13 percent since AI units were installed at call centers. “It actually changes people’s behavior without them knowing about it,” said one MetLife executive. “It becomes a more human interaction.”

NC State Bar Rule 5.1 Responsibilities of Principals, Managers and Supervisory Lawyers

(a) A principal in a law firm, and a lawyer who individually or together with other lawyers possesses comparable managerial authority, shall make reasonable efforts to ensure that the firm or the organization has in effect measures giving reasonable assurance that all lawyers in the firm or the organization conform to the Rules of Professional Conduct.

(b) A lawyer having direct supervisory authority over another lawyer shall make reasonable efforts to ensure that the other lawyer conforms to the Rules of Professional Conduct.

(c) A lawyer shall be responsible for another lawyer's violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct if:

(1) the lawyer orders or, with knowledge of the specific conduct, ratifies the conduct involved; or

(2) the lawyer is a principal or has comparable managerial authority in the law firm in which the other lawyer practices, or has direct supervisory authority over the other lawyer, and knows of the conduct at a time when its consequences can be avoided or mitigated but fails to take reasonable remedial action to avoid the consequences.

Comment [3]: In a small firm of experienced lawyers, informal supervision and periodic review of compliance with the required systems ordinarily will suffice. In a large firm or organization, or in practice situations in which difficult ethical problems frequently arise, more elaborate measures may be necessary.

About the Author

Jay Reeves

Jay Reeves practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina. He was Legal Editor at Lawyers Weekly and Risk Manager at Lawyers Mutual. He is the author of The Most Powerful Attorney in the World, a collection of short stories from a law life well-lived, which as the seasons pass becomes less about law and liability and more about loss, love, longing, laughter and life's lasting luminescence.

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