Robotic intelligence entering the legal market

A small but growing number of artificial intelligence (AI) solutions are now being trialled into the legal sector. The latest issue of the Partner Magazine by Netlaw Media explains how this development will affect law firms.

“For many years it was fashionable to ignore legal AI because, in all honesty, it was often harder to make the technology work than undertake the task itself,” Legal IT industry veteran Janet Day says in the article “The intelligenct choice”.

“But, thanks to developments such as Watson, I think it’s clear that legal AI is now just around the corner, in terms of going mainstream – possibly just millimeters around the corner.”

Janet Day is – as always – right in her prediction as law firms are now beginning to actually develop legal AI systems of their own. As mentioned in the article, Riverview Law and BLP Legal Risk Consultancy are developing legal AI tools which will help clients manage their contract-related risks. Another example is Ross, the new research tool being developed by a team of computer scientists at University of Toronto in conjunction with IBM, which can collate legal materials, learn from its past experiences and understand information in a way that makes it similar to an expert legal researcher.

In the Partner interview with Professor Richard Susskind, “Wired for success”, Professor Susskind recognises that Google already has replaced lawyers, in terms of much routine legal information and straightforward advice. He also remains confident that numerous innovations – such as automated document production and online justice – will soon move out of the margins of legal practice, and into the mainstream.

If this kind of AI becomes more widespread, the question is how much of existing lawyers’ workload that will be replaced by technology and how it will affect the existing law firm business model. Pessimists argue that junior lawyers are already being replaced by e-discovery software that can scan loads of document in search for evidence and that AI will sweep away also middle layer roles. A more positive approach is that while technology historically has always caused disruption, it has also led to the creation of new jobs. And to more interesting jobs. As pointed out in the article “Look out! Robo-lawyer’s here”, AI “will release us from the three Ds – dull, dangerous and dirty jobs – with a premium paid fo human ingenuity and insight.”

Neither of the AI systems currently being developed are intended to replace lawyers entirely, but will empower lawyers to focus their time on high-quality legal work instead of spending time on administrative work. But will there ever be a “Robo-lawyer” – a robot that could pass a Turing test for lawyers? “No,” theoretical physicist and futurist Dr Michio Kaku says in the article. “Not for many, many decades, if ever.” He further explains that “IBM and other companies are developing ‘expert systems’, perhaps the first major introduction of AI inte the commercial world. But these systems do not ‘think’. They lack two very important things: common sense and human value judgement.”

According to Jack G Conrad, president of the International Association for Artificial Intelligence and Law (IAAIL), the emergence of specific legal AI solutions reflects a shift in focus. Initially, there were high expectations that AI-fostered systems would be developed that could replicate the skills of a human lawyer, but recently, the goals of legal AI research have somewhat narrowed in scope, with a new focus on tackling specific topics. Additionally, there is now a greater appreciation of the existence of a ‘sweet spot’ where humans and computers complement each other’s strengths.

Similarly, Dr Michio Kaku points out that already lower-level desk work like looking up materials, sorting documents, finding basic facts etc., is increasingly done by computers. But those things that involve human values, human interactions and common sense, will still have to be done by humans, so many of the functions of lawyers will persist well into the future.

Professor Richard Susskind has a similar viewpoint when he suggest that “genuine market disruption – where technology is used to deliver legal services in genuinly different ways, rather than being grafted on to existing structures – is not likely to occur for several years.”

However, a common understanding is that the traditional law firm structure will be highly affected by the technological developments. A recent report by Jomati Consultants – “Civilisation 2030: The near future for law firms” – even suggests that “robots and artificial intelligence will dominate legal practice within 15 years, perhaps leading to the ‘structural collapse’ of law firms as the human part of lawyering would shrink. To sustain margins a law firm would have to show added value elsewhere, such as high-level advisory work, effectively using the AI as a production tool that enables them to retain the loyalty and major work of clients.” /…/ “For associate lawyers, the rise of AI will be a disaster. The number of associates that law firms need to hire will be greatly reduced, at least if the intention is to use junior lawyers for billable work rather than primarily to educate and train them to become business winners.”

Perhaps then it is not so strange that, as professor Richard Susskind points out in the article “Wired for success”, the group most reactionary are law students and young lawyers. Professor Susskind suggests that the problem is that “the advice typically given to early-stage lawyers is often 20 years out of date – and much of the work they expect to undertake is now in the process of being offshored, near-shored, or automated entirely. We’re still churning out vast numbers of lawyers that are trained to be 20th century laweyrs. There should be a whole cadre of young practitioners coming through the system that can help contribute to changing the way that legal services is delivered – but that’s not happening.”

A recent initiative by Allen & Overy might change that. In “Allen & Overy Legal Tech Initiative – R&D at Last but a Question”, Ron Friedmann reports how Allen & Overy has launched an experimental ideas and investment group aimed at developing new technology-related opportunities, including the area of artificial intelligence. A group that consists primarily of younger lawyers together with technology specialists. Hopefully, both the perception of young lawyers as reactionary and the doubts raised in the article about the signal sent to partners of the venture’s importance when assigning mainly young lawyers to a venture, will be refuted.