Despite a wide set of hazy connotations and popular misconceptions surrounding artificial intelligence (AI), this emerging tech sector has solidified its presence across professional service industries - and law is no exception. Indeed, the primary introduction of artificial intelligence to the legal community took place at an international conference held nearly 30 years ago, predating the invention of the worldwide web1. Since then, growth in AI has appeared to stagnate, with few real-world applications reaching the market. The reality is, however, that AI has been thoroughly researched and developed while in incubation, and the egg is finally about to hatch.
In 2014, for the first time ever, an AI program passed the Turing Test, which measures a computer’s ability to “think” well enough to be indistinguishable from an actual human during a two-way conversation. In 2016, the world’s first AI lawyer “Ross” was hired by a firm. These shifts have generated concern amongst legal professionals who, despite reassurance from AI manufacturers, are afraid of being replaced in the workforce.
Upon weighing the promises of AI companies against the potential of their products, it’s clear that there is some prudence behind these fears - but there is also, definitively, a new avenue for incoming legal workers to capitalize and win.
What is AI?
Artificial intelligence, also referred to as “cognitive computing”, is essentially the science of equipping computers with a learning ability that resembles human cognition. What separates AI from other streams of interactive, adaptive technology is that AI programs “think” - they build upon their own knowledge without additional stimulation from programmers. Most development in AI is oriented towards learning, reasoning, problem-solving, perception, and language-understanding2.
What tangible applications will AI have in the practice of law?
Initially, AI will be used to optimize and expedite two of the processes that generally tend to hinder law firm efficiency: research and e-Discovery. According to the ABA Journal, AI manufacturer NexLP (NexLP) is developing a program that searches for patterns, trends, and progressions within mass amounts of data, and uses predictive coding mechanisms to determine which pieces are relevant to the case or issue at hand. In less technical terms: it’s like studying from a textbook where all the answers to exam questions are highlighted, annotated, and explained conceptually.
NexLP’s Story Engine program operates similarly, but analyzes patterns from an unstructured and very nuanced datasource: conversations. This AI uses its progressive understanding of speech patterns to “summarize conversations, including the ideas discussed, the frequency of the communication and the mood of the speakers… [and then] build models to analyze behavior and find signs of fraud and litigation”3.
As AI technology advances in capability, scope, and reliability, NexLP founders Jay Leib and Dan Roth foresee more strategic applications for their data-crunching algorithms. Using litigation analytics, data anomalies, and expenditure reports, they plan to devise a program that will perform risk assessments and predict future litigation, empowering attorneys to invest in the most promising cases and optimize their use of data in storytelling.
How will AI impact you?
Ultimately, there are two key points to take away from this. First, although AI will be infinitely beneficial to the legal industry as a whole, its repercussions for job security may not be so pleasant. Programs like those being developed by NexLP will eliminate much of the “dirty work” that currently gets allocated to legal secretaries, assistants, and librarians - and unlike your favorite co-workers, AI programs won’t require sleep, supervision, or salaries. Many AI manufacturers insist that the goal of AI is not to replace legal staff members but instead to transform their roles. Other experts contest this possibility4, claiming that the actualization of AI will reduce firms’ operating costs so dramatically that junior associates and those working below them will be eliminated from big firms.
Though either eventuality is worth considering, it’s likely that reality will fall somewhere in the middle: junior and entry-level roles will be restructured, and those who are unable to adapt may be terminated. This introduces the second major takeaway: there are things you can do to prepare for (and capitalize upon) the functional integration of AI into law practice.
First of all, make sure your firm is equipped with the best in legal-tech - you can’t afford to remain stagnant when your competitors are racing ahead. Invest in a Legal Practice Management software that will act as a precursor to AI by implementing innovative and intelligently flexible automations in your document management, billing, calendaring, and correspondence systems.
Once you’ve fulfilled this basic obligation to your practice, focus on building your technical portfolio - especially if you’re a newer entry to the legal workforce. Find ways to contribute to your practice that leverage your personality and soft skills - not just your professional competencies. Market your firm and build long-lasting client relationships upon the appeal of positive human interaction; keep up with tech tools that may give your practice a competitive edge (and land you a role as a decision-maker in your firm); or explore a career in AI arbitration - as the industry develops, there will be a surging need for policies and governance to dictate its fair use.