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The robots are coming - but will justice be done?

03 June 2016

LHS Solicitors discuss the growth of AI and the impact it will have on the legal profession.


Robots are moving out of the factory and into the office. Traditionally, automation conjures up the image of something mechanical - factory robots that spray paint cars, for example, or squirt ketchup into bottles on conveyor belts.

The development of artificial intelligence (AI) has changed all this. Automated systems can now carry out tasks that previously required human intelligence, such as providing advice and analysing documents.

IBM's Watson computer is already being used for complex data analysis outside the legal sector, such as the medical profession. For example, US-based health insurer WellPoint uses Watson to support decisions on some patient procedures. The tool analyses medical policies, clinical guidelines, medical records, and other data including charts and graphs in order to deliver an opinion on the best course of action.

The hospitality sector, especially in Japan, is well on its way to embracing the introduction of AI. Guests who check in to the Henn-na Hotel in Nagasaki, Japan are greeted and served by Japanese robots. What does this mean for customer experience? According to this hospitalitynet article, studies have shown that customers like the robots and, in turn, become more loyal to the brand - while the hotel is confident that it will be able to save money on labour costs. Henn-na's goal is that someday in the not-too-distant future, 90 per cent of all tasks in the hotel will be performed robotically.

Some commentators believe the changes will be so profound that they represent nothing short of a 'fourth industrial revolution'. But what does this mean for the legal sector, and should solicitors be apprehensive?

How can AI be used in the law?

It would be wrong to suggest that artificial intelligence is entirely new to the legal sector. For decades, Westlaw and LexisNexis have been using natural language processing, a form of AI, to provide better search facilities and document identification.

Technology-assisted review (TAR) has also demonstrated advantages in processing legal information. Combining natural language processing and machine learning, TAR breaks down data, presenting results that can be reviewed by a human without them having to do the grunt work of trawling through papers.

These are just some of the innovations that promise to bring improvements to the speed, quality and cost of legal service provision. However, take-up of the technology is distinctly modest. This may be because law firms are inherently risk-averse, or because the benefits are not sufficiently clear, or perhaps solicitors simply do not believe their skills can be assisted or supplanted by a machine.

It is also possible that solicitors are deeply concerned about the impact AI might have on the profession - reducing their prestige and bringing redundancies. However, Mark Edwards of legal tech firm Rocket Solicitor UK predicts that AI will assist solicitors, rather than supplant them: 'Only a solicitor can unpick a complicated legal issue and provide the right legal advice. You guys are not going anywhere'.

AI and traditional practices

Artificial intelligence is set to transform the legal sector, whether solicitors welcome it or not. The change will affect legal professionals at all levels, but in quite different ways. First, at the more senior level, AI offers opportunities for solicitors and their clients to become more innovative. It can indicate successful strategies and model policies based on huge data sets, giving objective analyses that challenge the status quo. Arguably, one of the greatest benefits of AI is that it should provide partners and their clients with greater confidence to find fresh ways to solve legal problems.

For experienced solicitors, AI is likely to act as an insightful assistant, processing data and reviewing documents. This makes tasks quicker, reducing costs for both law firm and client, as well as helping to avoid key pieces of information being overlooked. Watson-style systems also provide data-driven answers to questions, so advice is based less on a solicitor's personal perspective of the law.

For the foreseeable future, automation cannot recreate the ability of the human mind to compare and contrast multiple sets of information, so an experienced human overview of any results produced by a computer will still be required.

AI may help solicitors take more objective approaches to determining prospects of success and the best legal strategies. The Lex machine has been developed by LexisNexis to forecast outcomes of a case going before a certain judge, analysing data about the judge's previous decisions and even the arguments that have proved successful in similar proceedings. By pointing the way to legal arguments that are most likely to win, this technology can save time and costs, in addition to improving chances of success.

Perhaps for more junior solicitors and paralegals, the outlook is less positive. By 2030, artificial intelligence is anticipated by Jomati Consultants to take over the predictable and routine tasks that are usually delegated to paralegals, resulting in human roles being replaced by machines. Even legal drafting of some documents is now possible using machine learning. The good news is that those who do obtain paralegal roles will have more interesting tasks, as the more routine ones are automated.

Can technology help provide better legal services?

What does all this mean for the future of the legal profession? For solicitors, it may mean upheaval and major changes to how their firms do business. For the clients of law firms, increased use of AI should bring improvements - rather than paying an hourly rate for everything from issuing detailed advice to reading through long documents, small businesses will only pay for a solicitor's time where it is truly needed.

The AI approach promises to make law firms more efficient and streamlined, bringing improvements in cost, speed and quality of advice for clients. Anything that enhances the experience for clients while also bringing fairer and more accessible options for justice has to be a good thing - is it time for you to consider a different approach to legal services?

Attend our free Robots and Lawyers event, 21 June

Watch our podcast on machine learning and AI

Read Jonathan Smithers' speech about AI

Read our report: The Future of Legal Services

A version of this article was previously published on the LHS website and is reproduced by kind permission.

Tags: business | development | IT | technology | artificial intelligence

About the author

LHS Solicitors LLP (LHS) is innovating the way legal services are delivered. It is an award-winning legal services provider, preferred and recommended by many of the UK's leading trade associations and commercial businesses. It has a consistent track record of success in delivering customer service excellence.
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