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Magic-circle law firms to use AI in the next 12-18 months

Will need 'legal robot shepherds' to fully leverage the technology

14 September 2015

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By Manju Manglani, Editor (@ManjuManglani)

Artificial intelligence (AI) will be prevalent among the UK's magic-circle law firms within the next 12 to 18 months.

That's the prediction of Matthew Whalley, who led the development of the UK's first fully-functioning 'contract robot', which was built at Berwin Leighton Paisner (BLP) by RAVN.

The technology enables legal work to be completed in one per cent of the time that it would take paralegals and associates to do.

"You can cut 99 per cent of the time it takes to do portions of work - that really is completely revolutionary," the head of BLP's legal risk consultancy told Managing Partner.

"In five years' time, a large portion of the UK legal market, certainly of the UK's top-20 and top-100 firms, will probably be using it. The magic circle will be using it within 12 or 18 months."

Riverview Law's CEO, Karl Chapman, recently predicted that artificial intelligence will be the norm in law firms by 2020.

Peter Wallqvist, managing director and co-founder of RAVN, goes even further. Asked if he agreed with Chapman's assertion, he said "AI will probably be in some form in every single firm" in the next five years.

Adoption of AI in the legal sector

Aside from BLP, law firms which have confirmed they are investing in artificial intelligence include Dentons (which is a developing a legal advisor app dubbed 'ROSS' with IBM Watson) and Riverview Law (which is developing 'virtual assistants' for in-house counsel through its subsidiary CliXLEX).

While BLP may be the first law firm to unveil a fully-functioning 'contract robot', it doesn't have exclusive access to RAVN's technology. The customisation is exclusive, but the technology is not.

Approximately 15 law firms are currently looking to leverage RAVN's applied cognitive engine (ACE), which powers BLP's robot. These include large firms and those which specialise in commoditised legal services; there has not been much interest yet from mid-tier firms.

Of the firms which are looking to use the technology, around a third are at the advanced stage of deploying it in their organisation. Some are currently using it to underpin their pitches for new client work.

"I would say between four and six are at the very cusp of exploiting it - and not just having determined that it works, but actually getting value out of it," commented Wallqvist.

"Some have a very advanced set of capabilities, like extremely high-value due diligence work for the biggest firms in the world, whereas others, when you hear about them, it doesn't sound very glamorous, but it is something that saves them a lot of time."

Several other technology providers - such as eBrevia, Kira and Narrative Science - are developing new forms of AI for the legal sector.

The rise of 'legal robot shepherds'

Some law firms may view the adoption of cognitive computing as an opportunity to reduce their headcounts and overheads. However, Whalley believes this would be short-sighted.

"You can retrain, reuse and reutilise that resource to process what the technology could deliver or to win more work which you could feed into the technology," he said.

In future, law firms will need people who are conversant with cognitive computing to manage their robots.

"You need people to tell each robot what it needs to do and to help it to learn how to do it better so that you can then move it forward," he suggested.

"So you've then got a group of people who aren't just lawyers, they are legal robot shepherds who will gather these robots, look after them, feed work to them, check the things that come out and then talk to the partners or the clients and say 'this is what the technology can do and this is what we can deliver with it'".

Differentiating legal services in the age of AI

With AI expected to be the norm in legal services by 2020, law firms will need to embrace technology to ensure their future survival.

Investing in AI-based technology will not be enough: managing partners will need to consider how they will use it to differentiate their firms' services, rather than trying to compete on cost or even speed. They will also need to look for new ways to leverage AI in future.

"You're right, it will be the technology then is taken out of the equation to a degree and it is what you are able to do with it that sets you apart," said Whalley.

Karl Chapman, CEO of Riverview Law, agrees. "The big differentiator will be how you use it, how you exploit it and the culture of your organisation," he said.

Law firms which are leaders in niche areas will need to exploit their specialist knowledge and market intelligence to retain their competitive advantage.

"Their knowledge is really in all their documents, in the way they use it. They would have a first-mover advantage and almost cement their leadership in it," suggested Wallqvist.

"It is only a matter of time before the upstart gets to the same level. But, for now, they can exploit the existing knowledge corpus that they have."





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