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Artificial intelligence and law firms – what does it all mean?

artificial intelligence and law firmsArtificial intelligence and law firms is certainly a phrase batted around frequently nowadays. Yet, does anyone really know what it means? I took a look at this question a couple of years ago but, since then, things have moved on.

Artificial intelligence is a generic term for a whole ragbag of technologies, system architectures and software. I have yet to meet two people who have given it the same definition. Confused? – you will be!

To unravel the conundrum, let’s not focus on technologies. Instead, let’s take a look at here now capabilities and how they are being applied effectively in the legal workplace.

The bottom line for artificial intelligence and law firms is straightforward. It has to be capable of doing the job as well as a human or better, without excessive human intervention.

AI that’s already here.

If you take that definition literally, there’s plenty of AI in legal offices now. Consider the following:

Practice management systems.

Yes, even your humble practice management system is a form of AI. The best ones manage your billable hours in the background without the need for tedious, month-end routines. This is just the tip of the iceberg. These systems automate many other aspects of administration including VAT returns and quarterly and annual firm accounts. They remove the drudgery by simple automation.

Due diligence.

In the same manner, AI can carry out due diligence much more quickly than legal staff. It also has the potential to eliminate human error.

Reviewing contracts.

There are AI systems around that can review contracts. They operate by drawing attention to any aspects or clauses that appear unusual. This allows legal professionals to focus on the salient points leading to better use of time. In addition, it reduces the human error factor.

Big data.

Big data is another buzzword. Essentially it means the ability to process large amounts of data (beyond the capability of humans) to deliver a result. This is particularly valuable in the legal sector where there is a vast databank of precedents and past cases.

AI speeds this process dramatically to provide law firms with information to determine how they should proceed. Lex Machina is one such product that can already assess the likelihood of winning a case as soon as the initial documentation is received.

Dispute resolution.

There isn’t really an AI product for dispute resolution available at the moment. However, many commentators, including Richard Susskind, believe it is just around the corner. Richard is a strong advocate of virtual courts and in his recent books he calls for a “global online court revolution”.

Critique.

Much of the above may appear pie in the sky to a small, High Street practice. Yet, a recent CBRE study of London law firms showed that 48% are already using artificial intelligence, and 41% plan to do so soon. If past IT trends are followed, it won’t be long before it trickles down from the Magic Circle.

Existing AI is tailored towards improving the speed, efficiency and accuracy of mundane and repetitive jobs. The bonus is that this leaves you free to concentrate on what you are good at – being a lawyer. The real issue is not the apocalyptic idea of replacing humans with machines. It’s about how AI can support the legal profession and, in doing so, provide a better client experience. And, of course, it won’t have escaped the more perspicacious lawyers that improved efficiency leads to an improved bottom line.

The key point is that AI needs to be trained by a human. It needs teaching to look for the right things in the right places first time and every time. AI understands neither where, why nor what it is looking for. Nor indeed why the material it seeks is either relevant or valuable. All AI can do is identify patterns of data. The template for those patterns has to be supplied by humans.

Orwell’s 1984 or Huxley’s Brave New World dystopian prophecy it certainly isn’t. However, AI will eventually change the legal landscape for you. To what extent will be determined very much by how willing you are to embrace the change.

Mike O’Donnell, February 2020.

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