Learning to love the machine

Learning to love the machine


Computers can help reduce the cost of processes and unlock matters that would otherwise not have proceeded, says Daniel Sutherland

A recent report by US technology company CenturyLink asked 200 senior IT decision-makers - 100 from the legal sector and 100 from other sectors - about their use of AI.

It found that, perhaps surprisingly, far more respondents in the legal sector use machine learning and predictive coding than respondents outside of the legal sector. With artificial intelligence, lawyers seem to be confounding their reputation for being late to the party when it comes to innovative technology.

The reputation of lawyers as luddites may never have been particularly well-deserved. From BlackBerrys to cloud computing, lawyers have invested where it has been clear that a return can be made. Lawyers can hardly be blamed that the institutions with which they interface on behalf of their clients still cling to laborious and old-fashioned ways of working, although even this is changing.

Cheaper, faster, scalable

Since lawyers have proven to be open to technology where it makes financial sense, the enthusiastic adoption of AI by many firms suggests that it has real promise to deliver immediate commercial benefits. There are obvious potential advantages to using a computer rather than a junior lawyer to sift through vast numbers of documents and select those which are relevant to a matter.

Not only is a computer potentially cheaper and faster than a human lawyer (at least if the task is one of significant size), a computer can be scaled up and down to the task at hand far more easily than hiring and firing lawyers to meet demand (although some innovative players such as Lawyers on Demand and Axiom may disagree).If a firm can reduce the often enormous cost of sifting through documents, that should allow it to charge a premium over its human-using competitors, or permit it to reduce prices without affecting profitability. Lower costs may unlock matters that would never otherwise have proceeded.

Less optimistically, law firms may look to AI as a solution to cope with the vast quantities of data that now regularly feature in litigation or a commercial transaction. The need for computer assistance in that task has long been recognised. It has so far been addressed with bulk-scanning of documents, optical character recognition and keyword searches, all geared towards speeding up the hunt for the smoking gun. The difference between what has gone before and today’s efforts are that the computer, rather than the lawyer, can make the judgement about whether a document is relevant or not and so the lawyer’s search for the needle is in a far smaller haystack.

Releasing trainees and junior lawyers from drudgery and ‘giving them their lives back’, as Slaughter & May’s senior partner described it, seems set to blunt the demand for trainees and NQs. Clifford Chance has already announced a 20 per cent cut in its trainee intake for 2018, citing ‘increased efficiencies’ in delivery of client services as the main reason for doing so. The rewards for increased efficiency are not going to be evenly spread through all lawyers.

Inflated expectations

What AI can achieve today is impressive, but lawyers would do well to pay heed to research firm Gartner’s ‘Hype Cycle’. That model expresses what many intuitively sense to be true, that emerging technologies tend to generate a peak of inflated expectations, followed by a trough of disillusionment as implementations fail to deliver. Only then, with some luck, is there a slope of ‘enlightenment’, as the technology matures, and then a plateau of productivity, where it is fully integrated into the business toolbox. In other words: early adopters of AI may find themselves let down by the reality.

There is risk in sitting on the side-lines, but there is also risk in overinvesting in promising technology that fails to deliver. Law firms need to remember that, at least in its current state, AI is no panacea. We are not yet at a stage where we know where AI will fit into the pantheon of law firm technology. It might become as ubiquitous and useful as email, or it might prove to make sense only for the largest matters at the largest firms.

Lawyers do see technology as a threat as well as an opportunity. Our recent report on trends within the legal sector revealed that technology was seen as the biggest threat to the legal profession, although using technology to commoditise law was also incredibly popular.

The danger of technology is not just that a well-implemented advance makes lawyers redundant, it’s also that law firms end up putting too many eggs in one basket, only to find that the truly disruptive technology can be found elsewhere. We worried about Tesco Law, perhaps now we should worry about Google Law.

Daniel Sutherland is a partner in Fox Williams LLP’s professional practices group

@foxwilliams www.foxwilliams.com