The legal industry has long been technologically cautious, at times approaching technology developments with restraint and even suspicion. Recently however, with workplaces, businesses, and even homes being flooded by an increasing number of interconnected devices, applications, technologies, and other innovations, the pressure on lawyers to truly embrace technology in their work is reaching its peak. To keep up with the growth of data that this connectivity explosion has caused, one of the technologies the legal world has increasingly adopted is artificial intelligence (AI).
Lawyers are starting to incorporate AI techniques such as machine learning to manage analysis-heavy activities like document review and contract analysis. On the one hand, it would be difficult for any lawyer to deny that machine learning technologies simplify the data analysis process, which is typically a long, laborious and unwelcome task. On the other, there’s still a lack of understanding in the legal industry around how exactly it can benefit lawyers. This has led to a fear of the unknown, and a wariness that human lawyers might be replaced by machines. But this unfounded fear can stymie innovation and forward thinking, and can inadvertently promote the status quo, even when the status quo is not in our best interest.
The fear may stem from the fact that while AI technology is not replacing lawyers, it is enabling smaller teams of lawyers to manage projects and tasks that previously required much larger teams. Machine learning allows lawyers to do their work more efficiently and effectively – whether it be conducting research, reviewing a corpus of client documents to investigate and understand what happened in relation to a particular event, or managing sets of client agreements to extract the negotiated legal terms and other relevant client and counterparty data. All these tasks are time consuming and complex. However, with the assistance of machine learning, they can all be sped up and managed more efficiently and cost effectively.
A further advantage for lawyers is that machines are far more consistent than humans, which combined with human subject matter expertise and precision means they and their clients can have greater faith in the work product they ultimately produce. This is especially beneficial across highly repetitive and at times mundane tasks – for example, a first pass review of documents for eDisclosure or data extraction from negotiated contracts.
Dealing with the data explosion
For example, in eDiscovery much of the data requiring review and analysis revolves around communication between people, both written and spoken. Today, there are also newer technologies like Instant Messaging (IM) that make it easier for people to communicate, but much harder for legal teams to review. The data that is generated from IM chats, which in some industries such as financial services has replaced the phone and email as the primary corporate communication tool, is replete with irregular formatting and extraneous metadata. IM conversations also present a unique problem in the highly unstructured data they contain. Incorrect spelling is commonplace, grammar barely an afterthought and the frequent use of jargon further complicates matters. While convenient for conducting business, such informality can render traditional search techniques almost redundant as a means of finding what you need in an investigation or review.
As a result, legal teams are routinely struggling to find the information that matters among large volumes of chat communications. This is a great example of where advanced analytics can help legal teams sift out the relevant information faster and with greater accuracy.
The cost conundrum
With the sheer volume and variety of data that lawyers need to analyse, the costs associated with such tasks are leading to many clients pushing their law firms to find more cost effective and efficient methods. This need to satisfy the client cost expectations will drive more and more law firms to look to adopt innovative technologies such as machine learning.
The challenge came to a head recently, where the question of whether the use of predictive coding – a machine learning process – should be allowed in legal proceedings became a point of contention in both a UK court (Pyrrho Investments Ltd v MWB Property Ltd) and an Irish court (Irish Bank v Sean Quinn). Ultimately, in both cases the court approved the use of predictive coding to assist the legal teams in analysing and reviewing the documents, which many view as landmark judgments that will help make machine learning mainstream. Whether or not they become mainstream in the short term, these decisions will certainly be major drivers for more partners and clients to sanction the use of such technologies on their projects, to help satisfy the client costs and timeframe constraints.
As the legal world continues to evolve, we’ll also begin to see the effects of a Generation X workforce having very different expectations and comfort levels when it comes to using technology. Many of today’s legal graduates would never think of printing out documents for review – similarly, why would they put up with reading through totally irrelevant documents for large parts of their day when technology can sift those out for them ahead of the actual review?
It’s clearly time for the legal industry to overcome the preconceived notions of “machines replacing lawyers”. The reality is that a combination of human and machine delivers a quicker, more accurate and cost effective service than a human alone. Looking to the future, we foresee a world where lawyers will look at far less irrelevant content and information when trying to find the facts, be it a research task, a document review, or a contract analysis exercise. This has to be a good thing when facing pressure to reduce costs yet at the same time deliver the client the timely solution they demand. It is the firms that don’t operate in fear and instead take a proactive approach in anticipating the inevitable incorporation of technology innovations that will reap the benefits.
Simon Price is UK managing director of Recommind