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The law of the digital land

While robots will never be able to replace lawyers entirely, many firms are investing in AI as a way of automating junior tasks

Innovation in Law

Compliance with a legal framework, such as GDPR, is a perfect illustration of why the law must integrate new technologies into their working practices. Photograph: iStock


The potential of AI technology has already been recognised by several industry sectors. Now law firms are joining the growing community of machine-learning enthusiasts. While robots will never be able to replace lawyers entirely, many firms are investing in AI as a way of automating junior tasks, thereby allowing greater resources to be put into more complex, higher value work. This isn’t just good news for overworked lawyers though. Increased efficiencies should lower costs for clients too.

The law of the land is rarely black and white. Society has designed and defined its own legal parameters in such a way so as to allow room for interpretation, contextualisation and the ability to consider circumstantial elements in any case. These are the auxiliary mechanics of any judicial system that prove human input is central.

There wouldn’t appear to be much room for technologies like AI in such a space. However, as datasets become an increasingly familiar source of evidence in court cases of all kinds, machines are proving their worth in a legal setting.

“Much of the talk of AI has revolved around the notion of a ‘robot lawyer’ capable of undertaking the tasks that a lawyer currently performs,” says Dr Catrina Denvir, director of Ulster University’s Legal Innovation Centre. “Technology rarely ‘apes’ human behaviour. In arriving at the same outcome that would be arrived at via human performance, technology fundamentally changes the nature of the work being performed.” The application of AI in law, says Denvir, will have the same effect (albeit unevenly distributed across the profession).

One clear leader for tech innovation in law in the Irish space already is McCann FitzGerald Solicitors. Having been one of the first in the world to adopt tools such as Tech Assisted Review (TAR), the firm is taking their innovation strategy very seriously. “We believe machine learning has the power to dramatically improve the services we can provide to our clients,” explains Karyn Harty, partner and head of Data Investigations Group.

The Dublin-based firm has its own R&D section, has set up a data investigations group, used Kira-style systems to help identify relevant information from unstructured contracts and related documents, and set up apps which provide legal expertise for clients in specific areas.

“We developed an app to assist those ensuring compliance with the coming General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR), coming into effect across Europe in May,” explains Tom Connor, executive associate from McCann FitzGerald. This major legal framework is designed to significantly enhance individuals’ data privacy rights and will have a major impact in most sectors, resetting the standards around personal data.

“We saw just how much time and money some our clients were spending in order to ensure compliance,” says Harty. “So we developed an app to more easily enable them to get a sense of their own compliance.” The app provides a graphic sense of where they are and what they still have to do. “It’s a very agile and useful tool for complying with a thorny piece of legislation,” she adds. “Penalties will be substantial. But this is just one new application of technology were using to help improve our services to clients.”

Compliance with a legal framework, such as GDPR, is a perfect illustration of why the law, just like everything else, must integrate new technologies into their working practices or risk being left behind. AI itself is likely to be used as a “weapon” to break laws of all kinds.

“We will see a move to a data driven profession, particularly in respect to due diligence, settlement cost prediction, contract negotiation and managing client relationships,” says Ulster University’s Catrina Denvir. “We will also see greater use of machine learning as a service – subject to cloud security concerns being addressed. These services will become increasingly user friendly, such that no coding experience is needed.”

The price of justice

It is anticipated that improved efficiencies in legal workloads made possible by AI and other technologies will drive down the significant costs often associated with hiring legal firms.

One can only hope that reduced costs will lead to greater access to justice for all. Whether or not these savings will be passed on to consumers remains to be seen. “There is a difference between adopting technology because it’s the only way you can meet a client’s budget, and adopting because you think it’ll garner the attention of more clients,” says Denvir. “One is proactive and one is reactive. Corporate law has been driven by the need to adopt technology in order to deliver services as the price set by the market, hence the concerns around a ‘race to the bottom’.”

Outside of corporate law, it’s clear the internet has already allowed for new models of cheaper service provision to emerge. “This is shown with the case of Rocket Lawyer where there are a whole range of pro-forma you can use for a fixed fee,” says Denvir. “But these new models also have to be conscious of the role lawyers play beyond just dispensing legal advice or drafting documents. Civil justice surveys which explore how people interact with the legal system reveal the broad range of factors that influence where (and if) people go for legal advice. Cost isn’t as much of a factor as one might think, at least not in regards to civil justice.”

Knowing where and how to integrate new technologies into any law firm is a challenge for staff not necessarily all that up to speed on available innovations. Therefore it is likely the law firms of the future will have, resident legal engineer. “We prefer the term ‘legal solution architect’,” says Tom Connor from McCann FitzGerald. “This person would be responsible for assisting partners in a firm who want to know which technologies might be at their disposal and how they could be applied correctly.”

Legal engineers (or “solution architects”) aren’t exactly falling from the sky though. So educational institutions will play a key role in all this by designing new programmes that will equip learners with the necessary skills for a niche role like this,” says Harty.