The rise of artificial intelligence: opportunity or challenge?

Artificial intelligence: friend or foe? Excello Law's Robert Morley writes.

Alongside Brexit and Donald Trump, artificial intelligence (AI) kept headline writers working overtime in 2016 – each competing for our attention in a world of increasing uncertainty. Online, a clear winner has emerged from this unlikely trio of scary topics: AI returns nearly two billion results in Google search, whereas The Donald scores a more modest 368 million and Brexit a mere 108 million.

AI has dominated attention when assessing the future of the legal industry and as a result, hyperbole has flourished. Underpinned by dystopian visions of lawyers being replaced by robots and the growing ranks of tech companies dedicated to replacing the human element from much of day-to-day legal practice, the future of law firms has seemed bleak.

This idea is not new; Professor Richard Susskind has successfully cast himself in the role of Cassandra for the legal profession over more than 30 years, arguing in his lectures and books, such as The End of Lawyers, that their numbers will shrink dramatically as the ever increasing power of computers will inevitably lead to AI undertaking most of the routine work. The only problem is that the fundamental premise of his argument – that AI based technology will make most lawyers redundant – is false. In the 1980s, Susskind’s original algorithmic rule-based programming was abandoned by the AI community as a cul-de-sac.

Meanwhile the approach has moved on apace. By combining a bundle of different technologies, such as machine learning underpinned by neural networks, powered by vast arrays of parallel computers, we now have the ability to rapidly analyse very big datasets for patterns. Modern AI is increasingly able to perform complex, repetitive analytical tasks much faster than humans. Law firms are now using multiple different AI applications, powered by systems like IBM’s Watson – celebrated for winning the US game show Jeopardy. AI applications like Watson improve and enhance legal research functions, enabling lawyers to provide dramatically faster and more comprehensive analysis of contracts and precedents.

A landmark case last year, Pyrrho Investments v MWB Property saw the first approval by an English court concerning the use of predictive coding in document review: an AI system was trained to identify and classify relevant documents within large volumes of data. However, predictive coding is a tool, it does not replace lawyers, but instead frees up their time for other tasks. AI adds to efficiency for lawyers just as the personal computer, the mobile phone and the internet have all done, ultimately AI is becoming an integral addition to each of these existing technologies.

Magic circle firms have embraced AI, forging deals with AI tech providers, such as Clifford Chance to Canadian software provider Kira Systems. However, the number of lawyers employed by large commercial firms, and the number of trainees taken on – the best indicator of future size – has not decreased. Instead, since the post-crisis low of 2009/10, the number of lawyers and new trainees has increased.

As big commercial law firms begin to embrace the opportunities that AI presents, they are not planning to reduce their headcount. If anything, the reverse appears to be the case. Overall, training contract numbers rose by 9 per cent in 2016 from 5,000 to 5,450, according to the most recently available figures.

Undoubtedly, lawyers will increasingly use AI as a diagnostic tool, to support their work in myriad ways, but however fast and versatile, it will remain a tool, incapable of creative, independent judgement – the essential elements in the job of a lawyer. However clever our machines become, they can never be human. No algorithm exists to replace us. Understanding when a situation is subtly but importantly different from before, and knowing what to do with this new situation, is a distinctly human characteristic, very far removed from simply processing and extracting information from enormous volumes of big data.

As inspiring and exciting as the current generation of AI research may be for what it can do in saving time and minimising laborious legal tasks, it will remain a useful tool. Over the coming century, AI will increasingly help lawyers to perform their job in many different ways. But while terms like artificial intelligence and neural network may give the impression that self-aware automatons are about to replace lawyers, they need not fear for their jobs.

Robert Morley is the chief operating officer of Excello Law.

See also: Artificial intelligence and automation – can we plug the skills gap?

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda was Editor for from 2016 to 2018.

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