Artificial intelligence is the buzzword of the late 2010s. And according to a report published on The Times Law’s Brief Premium website in October 2017, the UK’s top law firms are enthusiastically embracing the positive changes AI is bringing to the legal world. The report included a unique survey of the top of the UK legal profession, which reveals that around 40 of the biggest 100 law firms in the UK are using AI systems on active files. In addition, nearly another 30 of the top law firms are piloting systems, although not yet implementing them, for client work. The remainder of the 100 are considering a pilot.
Not one law firm in the survey expressed a complete lack of interest in AI.
What can AI offer the legal industry? Should we be worried about mass job losses? And can AI be harnessed to make litigation cheaper and easier, thereby opening up access to justice?
How is the legal industry currently using AI in the courtroom?
AI has had a significant impact on the process of review. According to Tony Sykes of IT Group UK Ltd, who took part in a forum entitled: Impact of AI and Technology on Litigation:
“When documents have been required to be scanned and then passed through an optical character recognition process (OCR) or have been translated from a foreign language or recovered from a deleted file, then errors in the exact results are not uncommon. Algorithms have been developed and refined that enable searches to have a ‘fuzziness’ so that these errors or uncertainties do not result in key evidence being missed by the search engine. The review process itself, now considered to be one of the single most costly aspects of disclosure, can be automated by the use of AI. A sample of documents is reviewed by a review panel and then the AI algorithms ‘learn’ which type of documents trigger a review criterion and then the AI software completes the rest of the review.”
Mr Sykes also stated that huge cost savings were being made through the increased use of software platforms that enabled electronic trials and arbitrations to occur, bringing massive cost savings thanks to their paperless process. He also commented that good e-disclosure software can extract relevant information from a large email account quickly and effectively, reducing review time and protecting confidentiality.
Darren Pauling, managing partner of KPMG, who also contributed to the forum, pointed out that AI has existed in the legal industry for a decade or more and it was the responsibility of a technology partner to advise firms on how to best use the technology available and make sure it is applied in a way that benefits the client.
Will AI cost jobs in the legal sector?
One of the biggest fears associated with AI is the possibility of mass unemployment. And the legal sector is one where job losses are, unfortunately, seen as a given.
Richard Tromans, a leading legal AI consultant and editor of the Artificial Lawyer website recently contributed to a podcast run by The Times, The Brief Supplement, stating, “process level work, work that was never really part of the legal profession, that will go eventually, that is without question. The key point is, I don’t think skilled lawyers will be replaced, but the people who are supporting them maybe”.
One type of AI which could drastically affect the litigation world as we know it is the development of ‘robojudges’. In his book, Life 3.0, Max Tegmark, a professor of physics at MIT, states that robojudges could be the tool that ensures, for the first time in history, that Atticus Finch’s idealism that all people are equal in a courtroom, actually materialises.
Robojudges could create freedom from human biases which are accidental rather than intentional but can result in injustice. For example, Mr Tegmark cites a controversial 2012 study of Israeli judges which showed they delivered harsher verdicts when they were hungry. In addition, a human judge may lack the time to digest the details of a complex case. A robojudge of the other hand, with its unlimited memory and learning ability, could easily work through piles of data in minutes.
Better access to justice in the future?
It has always been fundamental to the Rule of Law that every citizen has access to justice. And although in theory, access to justice is provided to all in the UK, those working in the legal profession know it is not. With legal aid denied to most family and PI clients, and SMEs unable to risk adverse cost orders which could totally destroy their cash reserves, there are many who cannot afford to use our legal system.
AI promises to reduce costs in all areas of contentious and non-contentious law. Even those who view such ideas as the Robojudge as sci-fi fantasy that could never happen, have to concede that such a development could dramatically speed up the legal process and unclog our creaking court system.
Tony Sykes mentions that the US has been employing algorithms to predict or report on the likely behaviour of a defendant when considering bail or the appropriate type of custodial premises. These advances could be transferred to the civil litigation arena, predicting the circumstances in which one or both parties would be prepared to settle, again dramatically reducing the risks associated with formal litigation and opening up access to justice, especially for small businesses.
The use of e-disclosure (a form of AI) is now well-established, tried, and tested. And further research and developments are occurring all the time. For example, A 2016 study by University College London, the University of Sheffield, and the University of Pennsylvania looked at the judicial decisions of the European Court of Human Rights, and using previously developed AI, they predicted the outcomes of the cases to an accuracy of 79 percent.
In the same way the world wide web revolutionised the way we work, AI is predicted to upend the world as we know it. But change is not a foregone path to negative consequences for humanity. The internet has cost jobs, but it has also created thousands of roles that never existed 15 years ago. AI will do the same. Paralegals may become outdated, but more complex demands are likely to be made of solicitors, resulting in the need for other types of support.
The most important thing we can hope AI provides, is not just efficiency to the legal profession, but the ability for more individuals and businesses to access the law without the risk of financially crippling themselves.
The first requisite of civilization is that of justice.
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 For those who have not read the book, or need reminded of the passage, Atticus’s closing speech before the jury includes: “But there is one way in this country in which all men are created equal – there is one human institution that makes a pauper the equal of a Rockefeller, the stupid man the equal of an Einstein and the ignorant man the equal of any college president. That institution, gentlemen, is a court. It can be the Supreme Court of the United States or the humblest J.P court in the land, or this honourable court in which you serve. Our courts have their faults, as does any human institution, but in this country our courts are the great levellers, and in our courts all men are created equal”.