Guest post: What does AI mean for the future of law?

Typically, the legal industry has been thought of as a very traditional sector for a long time. In fact, it’s renowned for lagging behind other industries, such as financial services and retail, especially when it comes to innovation in technology and client service provision. However, over the past five years in particular, the sector has changed dramatically and firms are no longer able to rely on current working practices. With recent legislation amendments, such as the Jackson reforms and the rise of fixed fee environments, lawyers have been forced to accept that their businesses are changing.

These changes have caused firms to come under increasing pressure to cut out waste and work more efficiently, but without sacrificing the quality of the service they provide. Not only this, but as society becomes more fast-paced, clients are demanding a better quality service and more value for their money. In the face of regulatory reform, which is making some areas of law unsustainable, the once analogue legal sector is pushing the boundaries of the digital revolution to find the answers to greater efficiency.

The rise of Artificial Intelligence

Currently, most of the innovation focus is centring on Artificial Intelligence (AI) and how the rise of machine learning could potentially transform the sector. AI is gaining so much attention in the legal world that many law firms are starting to create tech-focused jobs and departments, such as head of research and development, that can spend their time exploring new technologies and software. On top of these new job roles, more and more companies are now pouring huge amounts of investment into developing AI systems that can automate research and admin tasks, which have traditionally been undertaken by junior lawyers.

Fletchers itself now has a specialist IT and systems department, which is dedicated to developing new systems and software that can help provide better legal services. We’ve also recently partnered up with the University of Liverpool as part of a landmark project to develop future AI innovations for the sector. The aim is to incorporate these innovations into current working methods to help achieve faster, fairer, settlements for our clients.

One of the main benefits of AI is that it can help assist lawyers with reviewing large volumes of current and past case work at a much faster pace. By utilising the large amounts of legal data available inside law firms and in external databases in a matter of hours rather than days, AI systems could significantly reduce research time and help lawyers make quicker, more accurate decisions.

Ross, which is powered by IBM’s Watson platform, is one system that is already being pioneered in the US legal market. Gaining its name as ‘the world’s first artificially intelligent lawyer’, Ross goes beyond a simple knowledge database and uses machine learning to actually understand complex legal language. Lawyers can ask Ross questions and the system will then source out citations and topical articles from a variety of sources to help lawyers make decisions. It searches and collates all available information on previous cases and relevant statute to provide increasingly sophisticated hypotheses and supporting references.

By removing the time-consuming elements of research and data analysis, lawyers will have more freedom to focus their attention on complex tasks like core legal analysis and providing a better quality of service to clients. This will also allow them to become more efficient and save money – benefits that speak volumes to those firms that are battling with profit cuts caused by fixed fee restrictions and new regulations (such as the proposed whiplash reforms, which will allow claims of up to £5,000 to be handled in a small claims court rather than by a lawyer).

Where are adoption rates at now?

New products and suppliers are constantly emerging as the buzz around AI grows in the legal sector. Many early developers in the industry appear to be focusing on the use of AI to speed up data analysis, with a few exploring the possibilities of using cognitive AI software (systems that can use understanding and reasoning).

Having said this, early adopters do remain minimal, as the majority of lawyers are still trying to get to grips with how AI software can assist in the legal process. Perhaps one of the main barriers to adoption at the moment is people’s attitudes to legal practices and customs that are deeply rooted in the industry. The legal sector has practices and protocols developed over a number of centuries, so adapting long-standing traditions and overcoming the fear of change is something of a challenge. Some parts of the sector still see AI as a force that may threaten the legal opinion of lawyers, rather than recognising the value it could add to assisting in legal decision making.

In terms of investment and development, exploring AI products comes at a significant cost, time and effort. Therefore, for some SME firms, adoption of such systems is a long way off at the moment. And even for the larger firms that do have the time and investment funds available, there is still a level of caution and scepticism as to the role AI will play in the future of law.

One worry is that the traditional business model of law (with its billable hours and partnership structure) isn’t suited to tech innovation, as experimentation and development is risky and potentially expensive. It’s clear that tech innovation is growing in importance and the sector is definitely catching on. But there are still a large number of firms waiting around to see what the future holds, rather than being the ones to make the first move and lead the way in innovation and change.

What will the future of law look like?

As this technology is still in the early stages of development, there is some way to go before we see a mass uptake of AI systems across the entire legal sector. However, over the next few years, it is likely that AI will make waves in the UK legal industry, and for the early adopters who are wise and bold enough to recognise the benefits, it could be a substantial accelerator for growth. Once machine learning and algorithmic automation systems are launched, the sheer size of the competitive gap that will be created will be huge. Positioned correctly, this tech has the potential to be extremely disruptive to the legal market.

To answer the big question that a lot of lawyers are asking right now – ‘will AI systems replace the role of traditional lawyers in the future?’ – I believe the answer is no. Instead, it’s highly likely that AI will be used to support lawyers, automating time-consuming data research and suggesting relevant case law and statute to assist them rather than replace them. In the future, these systems may well be able to suggest potential judgments based upon automated legal reasoning tasks and provide options for advice on a particular client matter, but that is quite some way off. So, in the meantime the human element and legal expertise provided by a lawyer is unlikely to be replaced by a machine.

The possibilities for AI are endless and the tech revolution is definitely here to stay. The question is whether more firms will embrace the wealth of opportunities available to them, or bury their heads in the sand and risk losing out to the competition. Times are changing – it’s likely that we will see innovation happening within the legal sector at a rate never seen before and AI is rapidly becoming a popular solution. Now’s the time to get on board.

Dan Taylor is director of systems at leading medical negligence and serious injury law firm Fletchers Solicitors