Source: The Law Society
In the next of a series of articles discussing the evolution of the legaltech sector and how it could revolutionise the legal industry, Law Society partner and equity crowdfunding platform Seedrs explains how developments within artificial intelligence (AI) are taking law firms and solicitors to the next level.
When we talk about AI in 2018 (and for the purposes of this article), we mean clever forms of computerised automation and search.
Although research is being done to progress the concept of ‘true’ AI – where a computer can simply be left to its own devices to learn – we are currently in the very early stages, and the singularity (the point at which computers will be as smart as humans) may still be at least 30 years away.
Google is arguably the most advanced form of AI at present, with the ability to interpret natural language search queries (known as natural language processing) and sift through billions of web pages (big data) to provide the most relevant results.
It can also analyse previous queries from each particular user to tailor the rankings on an individual basis (machine learning).
Google aside, there are a huge variety of software tools which provide AI functions, some of which have legal sector-specific applications.
Six ways the legal sector is using AI
Some of the main types of AI used within the legal sector include:
1. Practice management automation
Many of the tools built into billing and wider practice management software are a form of AI.
For example, time-recording programs can log the hours spent by a lawyer in terms of work done in respect of each client, and automatically generate invoices at the end of each month or relevant time period.
2. Predictive coding
This is possibly one of the most advanced forms of AI currently being used by the legal sector. It refers to technology-assisted review used to speed up the e-disclosure process.
Predictive coding software is basically a search algorithm which ‘learns’ how to rank the relevance of documents, based upon an initial training session where a lawyer tweaks the algorithm. It is then let loose on thousands of documents to determine which ones are most relevant for purposes of disclosure.
3. Document assembly
Many bespoke contracts can be created by simply answering a few questions and filling out the relevant fields. AI software (for example, Uhura AI) can also be used to read existing contracts and check for any missing clauses.
4. Legal research
The big online legal information resources such as LexisNexis and Practical Law are constantly improving their search algorithms to help lawyers find the most relevant material pertaining to their case.
Some AI tools go a step further and can help lawyers to form a case strategy based on previous outcomes in similar cases (for example, Lex Machina).
5. Voice recognition
Digital dictation has improved dramatically over the last two decades, but a host of virtual assistants (for example, Siri) can now carry out various functions, such as booking appointments and searching through documents, through voice alone.
6. DIY law and chatbots
Services such as Rocket Lawyer apply elements of document assembly to help individuals and businesses form their own legal documents, without having to go to a lawyer. Chatbot-style tools can also provide access to basic legal assistance, such as DoNotPay, which helps people appeal parking fines.
What do lawyers think?
Brian Inkster, founder of Inksters, a multi-disciplinary law firm with offices across Scotland, says that while predictive coding technology is one of the key forms of AI with a stronger take-up by the legal sector, small to medium-sized law firms do not have much call to take advantage of it. In fact, he says: ‘I have yet to see any real legal AI products that I think would benefit my firm.’
Inkster warns of the hype which has led to the exaggeration of AI functionality: ‘Law firms need to be aware of legal AI “washing”, whereby vendors say their products are AI-enabled, but the reality is far from that.’
He also urges firms to make better use of their existing technology before looking for more bleeding-edge solutions: ‘Most law firms will already have perfectly good non-AI legal technology in their arsenal that they are not using or overwhelmingly underusing – that case management system they bought a few years ago, for example, that is still sitting on the shelf because they never really got around to implementing it.
‘Law firms of all sizes would do well to look at what technology they already have and start actually putting that to use, before they turn their attention to the shiny new toy that AI is.’
View from the legal tech sector
Nimrod Aharon, co-founder and CEO at legal analysis platform LitiGate, claims that ‘the power of AI in high volume litigation is tremendous, but law firms are currently only scraping the surface of its vast potential’.
LitiGate uses AI technologies to help litigators to instantly identify the risk, exposure and the relevant legal issues at stake in any given case, by analysing the relevant documents and reviewing the success rates, arguments, merits and fallbacks and taking into account what has been argued in the past and how judges reacted to these arguments.
Aharon says that routine legal tasks can be done faster, more accurately and cheaper with automation and AI: ‘By identifying the semantic and functional patterns in similar and repetitive use cases, we can mimic the routine work of lawyers, from detecting the key issues in a specific document, through processing large amounts of data in a streamlined litigation process, to reviewing court documents and submissions using AI legal research … the power of AI in litigation is to help you win more chess moves according to the rules of the game.’
What’s holding AI back?
One of the stumbling blocks for legaltech start-ups developing new AI products is access to funding. Some of the magic circle firms provide this funding, but an alternative for start-ups is to use an equity crowdfunding platform such as Seedrs.
Seedrs has helped several AI businesses to find capital, including Plum (a personal money assistant which uses AI technology to help better manage finances) and, at present, CityFalcon (a fintech start-up which is looking to use natural language processing to further advance financial content).
Although these businesses are not legal sector-specific, their journeys demonstrate the importance of access to funding in getting AI off the ground.
The Law Society has partnered with Seedrs, in a joint effort to promote the legaltech ecosystem, and this additional route to funding for tech start-ups will help to create a wider range of AI resources.
What does the future hold for AI and lawyers?
Joanne Frears, a commercial, IP and technology law solicitor at Lionshead Law, thinks that lawyers should start considering the potential of AI not merely to make efficiency gains, but to radically shake up the legal sector. ‘Despite AI in law this year finally meeting the hype of previous ones, most AI-law firm collaborations remain of the data-crunching type, performing the tasks of many lawyers faster, more efficiently and more accurately,’ she remarks.
‘But if we simply ask AI to perform the same legal tasks as lawyers have always undertaken, I can’t help thinking that we’ve missed the point of it. Lawyers need to think more like technologists and consider what AI could mean for the entire practice of legal service delivery.’
Frears warns that the greatest threat AI poses to law firms is in its use ‘by those outside the profession to provide the same services, with all the combined learning of law libraries, precedent and risk analysis, reliably and instantaneously, but without the training, rigour and regulation of the legal profession.
‘AI can and should change the way law is done, just as blockchain and self-regulating contracts will. Right now, to quote David Bowie, it’s a case of “turn and face the strange”.’
Although it is mainly the big law firms which are experimenting currently with AI tools, firms of all sizes should keep abreast of developments in this area, both to take advantage of new products which could potentially level the playing field, and to look out for threats from digital technology start-ups.