Could robots replace lawyers?
The year is 2067. A robo-lawyer glides across the courtroom and interrogates you about the vintage Echo Dot you stole from the antiques dealer. You plead with the automaton: you have a law degree but alas, no one will hire you because the legal industry has long since eradicated the need for human lawyers. It all began when hyper-efficient lawyerbots started getting better returns for clients (who are also robots, working in-house for the more sociable hours). Jobless and suffocated by student debt, you explain to the court that you just needed some cash. The robo-attorney would laugh at the irony, if only it could detect irony. Or perhaps show sympathy? Not a flicker.
Back here in 2017, this is one dystopian vision we don’t expect to materialize – no matter how far artificial intelligence progresses, it will be the lawyer’s tool, not its master. Nevertheless, AI is making headlines everywhere as it becomes more accessible and practical. It's appearing in our daily lives – Siri and Cortana are our own personal assistants for scheduling meetings or reminding us about our parents’ birthdays. Smart homes and Amazon's Alexa can essentially automate our houses as they learn our preferred heating regimes or when we need our coffee fix. Constant new developments are allowing technology to take the wheel; driverless cars are soon to be on our streets and the law is scrambling to catch up. If, for example, a driverless car causes an accident, does the liability fall with the manufacturer or the driver? Are we talking personal injury or product liability?
“Legal work is much more interesting as computers can do the donkey work, and the lawyers are able to do more analysis.”
The legal industry has been reassuringly slow to invest in new technology, especially compared to other industries. Joe Conroy, CEO of tech-savvy firm Cooley, admits that“when compared to our clients, we, like all large law firms, aren't particularly innovative with respect to the use of technology in delivering client service.” However, more law firms have been establishing specific teams to address general efficiency and client service. These teams research what's available and where investment would benefit its clients. It’s called 'Knowledge Management', and it’s increasingly affecting law firm strategy. Lucy Dillon, chief knowledge officer at Reed Smith in London, describes the aims of the firm's KM team as threefold: “quality of product, efficiency, and sharing our knowledge with clients.” These teams demonstrate that new technology isn't the entire solution for law firms, but with over 600 technical innovations aimed at law in 2015 alone, technology can certainly help reach these goals. Joe Conroy also recognizes the shift in law firm priorities and notes that the firm's “IT budget for 2017 devotes more money than ever before to innovation.”
For the moment, AI in law is mainly limited to research, taking the form of “online research services which enable the firm to make sure the advice we give is correct and up to date,” Lucy Dillon explained. It can also “automate document production” at a pace far quicker than the average attorney. It’s looking to be a massive time-saver for firms, and bringing true value on the more repetitive tasks – lawyers spend less time trawling through endless files. Instead, computer programs can read documents, interpret them, and identify the case-relevant results – all in a matter of minutes. And how might lawyers use this newly freed time of theirs? Dillon says now “legal work is much more interesting as computers can do the donkey work, and the lawyers are able to do more analysis,” adding further value for the client. AI can even take advisory roles, although not extensively. It can't provide specific advice to a client on a specific matter, but can answer simple and common legal questions.
These web advisers – also called smart apps or chatbots – are handy for those clients who maybe aren't ready to fork out for legal fees just yet. It also saves lawyers' time once again, as they don't have to answer the same old legal questions repeatedly. Case predictions are another use: a system called Premonition employs machine learning to predict the outcome of a case based on analysis of previous court decisions and other factors. It enables lawyers to make better decisions and give better advice based on how likely an outcome is.
You may have also heard of a fellow called ROSS. Not the hapless paleontologist from Friends, but “the world's first artificially intelligent attorney.” It is powered by IBM's Watson technology, famous for beating human contestants on the game show Jeopardy. The machine serves as an efficient legal research tool, with the ability to understand natural language and then sift through entire bodies of law and come back with an answer. Not only that, but it employs machine learning technology: it will improve the more it's used, and adjust its research methods accordingly. And usefully, it monitors developments in the legal industry – new court decisions, or anything that may affect a lawyer's case. Those that have hired ROSS so far include Baker & Hostetler, Latham & Watkins, and Womble Carlyle. Co-founder Andrew Arruda claims the aim of the system is not to replace human lawyers, but to enhance their skills and allow them to do their jobs more efficiently.
“Law is a human business. It's about solving people problems. The answers aren't straightforward, there's always an element of interpretation.”
AI undoubtedly has its limitations though. Dillon sums up the sentiment in saying “law is a human business. It's about solving people problems. The answers aren't straightforward, there's always an element of interpretation.” Currently, AI isn't sophisticated enough to deal with the complexities and nuances of disputes and negotiations. And although tech may reduce the chances of human error, it comes with its own equivalent risks, for instance, potential errors in algorithms. But perhaps most importantly, AI has its limitations in the area of client-attorney relationships. Client-lawyer engagements are based on faith and trust. How can you build a relationship with your robotic lawyer if it can’t sympathize with your cause?
Every firm wants that competitive advantage, so what next for law? Given that it's taken the industry slightly longer to catch up in the tech field, juniors can rest assured that their jobs are still safe... for now. But the conversation of tech's possibilities in law is well underway. A recent report from the UK Law Society expects “firms will be tasked with managing an augmented workforce that includes a new generation of smart technologies, virtual assistants, algorithms, automated processes and distributed devices alongside flesh-and-blood staff.” Going further, what if an artificially intelligent creation could sit on a company's board of directors? This is the case of Vital, a software at a venture capital firm in Hong Kong called Deep Knowledge. Vital can pick up on market trends that may not be obvious to the human eye, and therefore predict successful investments. In terms of financial decisions, who's to say this can't be applied to the legal industry? Lucy Dillon reckons that “in three years time, [AI] will be mainstream and we will all be using it.” Either way, we can expect advances in AI to continue to shake up the traditional legal sphere in the coming years.