Embracing the Next Wave of Legal AI

Managing Director Jim Vint and Director Scott Carr discuss upcoming AI trends that will bring transformations to law firms large and small

As artificial intelligence (AI) is used with greater frequency in the practice of law, attorneys face a reckoning: embrace the new technology, or potentially face extinction. What's the driving force behind this technological transformation?

  • Costs and competition are driving this trend.
  • Clients are demanding that lawyers hold down legal fees, and AI offers a less expensive way to perform routine legal work that was traditionally the purview of junior-level attorneys.
  • And with law firms and their clients increasing their use of AI, attorneys have little choice but to keep pace with the competition, or be left behind.

Attorneys shouldn't fear the growing use of AI; they should embrace AI as a competitive advantage. The advantages of using AI greatly outweigh any threats.

Trickle Down Effect

Large law firms were the first to use AI for such routine tasks as contract review and e-discovery. As their corporate clients complained about rising legal fees, big firms could no longer justify dispatching armies of associates to perform document review. AI-based applications — such as “predictive coding” applications used for large-scale document review — were developed to improve efficiency, identify relevant documents earlier, and cut expenses. Now the use of AI is an accepted practice at large firms, and clients are constantly challenging these law firms to prove they are innovating and employing the latest technology.

This trend is trickling down to smaller firms, which face the same cost and competitive pressures. Rather than viewing AI with fear, smaller firms should view the technology as a way to level the playing field. AI offers smaller firms a way to punch above their weight. There is no longer a need for a stable of associates to keep pace with the workload of big firms. AI also helps smaller firms handle the same work without large IT departments.

Advances in AI have made the technology more accessible and affordable to smaller firms. Like any new technology — from computers to flat-screen TVs — the price of AI for law firms (legal AI) will continue to fall as the capabilities, and competitors in the space, rise.

Technical Advantages

Legal AI has two characteristics that make it an ideal tool for the profession. One is Natural Language Processing, the ability to understand text as it is ordinarily written. Thus, unlike conventional (non-AI) applications that can only process “structured” data, AI-based applications can understand and analyze written documents such as contracts, emails, and legal filings.

The other characteristic is machine learning, the technology’s ability to learn and adapt. So as the software moves through a task, it becomes more knowledgeable about a subject and more accurate in its results. Machine learning is akin to a child learning to color, beginning with a box of eight crayons. Over time, the child learns from her experiences and eventually can distinguish the subtle differences between the pink and magenta hues in a box of 64 crayons.

Familiar examples of consumer technology that use Natural Language Processing and machine learning include IBM’s Watson, Apple’s Siri, and Amazon’s Echo.

In legal AI, the most common uses for Natural Language Processing and machine learning come in reviewing contracts and searching reams of documents as part of a discovery process. The technology recognizes keywords and patterns in data, learns and adapts from the information, and continually scores and ranks data for its relevance.

Using machines instead of associates to perform this type of work could result in a 13 percent reduction in billable hours, according to research from the University of North Carolina School of Law.

Whether that reduction in hours translates into a reduction in attorneys’ jobs is still debated. A strong argument can be made that AI can free up a lawyer to focus on the artisan aspects of the trade, such as litigation and legal writing. Through driving new efficiencies and allowing lawyers to be more strategic, AI also is providing value to law firms’ clients.

Additional Capabilities

But AI is capable of much more than simple document searches. Consider predictive analytics, where the AI software can examine large databases of court cases and documents and predict likely outcomes. For instance, how might a certain judge rule on a motion? What damages have been awarded by a particular court? What is the litigation experience and the results achieved by an opposing attorney or law firm? Is there a pattern to how a party proceeds with a case, choosing to settle or deciding to litigate?

Predictive analytics is akin to a baseball pitcher using analysis to determine how an opposing batter performs in certain situations and then deciding what pitch to throw. It helps a lawyer assess the potential outcome of a case.

While a machine can comb through all this data and provide a report, there is still a need for a human being with expertise to analyze and interpret the information. This is where AI could help attorneys do their jobs better, rather than eliminate their jobs.

Training Today’s Attorneys

The key is for lawyers to understand the changing legal landscape and adapt through education and training. For law schools, that means teaching students to understand and use the new AI technology. For practicing attorneys, that means receiving training in how to use AI. Lawyers don’t need to learn coding. But they need to understand how the technology works and how to use it effectively.

Beyond learning how AI operates, attorneys need to determine which technology package is right for their practice. There are dozens of legal AI software options available with various levels of sophistication and price points for a variety of functions. Comparing notes on different systems with like-minded law firms is one way to select the right technology. Another method is to seek the assistance of a consultant with expertise in the field.

Embracing the Evolution

Rather than fear the continued advance of AI, law firms should embrace the change and determine how the technology can best be used in their practices.

Like virtual personal assistants and autonomous cars, legal AI is here to stay and will only grow in popularity. Lawyers need to implement AI into their practices, as clients demand greater value for their legal dollar, and competitors large and small adopt the new technology.

The speed with which law firms adapt to the changes wrought by technology may very well determine whether AI poses new challenges for their organizations, or offers new opportunities.

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