There is increasing coverage of advances in artificial intelligence (AI) in the press. So how long before the traditional lawyer is replaced by a robot which has been programmed to perform the same role? This article looks at the new technology trend.

The legal industry has seen huge technological advances in recent years. First a pager, then a fax, mobile phone, email and the Internet have revolutionised the average working day. How will new developments in AI change the legal industry further? An online search for ‘Artificial Intelligence and Law’ created over 8 million hits.

What is AI? There are various interpretations, some of which conjure images of Star Trek or The Terminator. An oft-used term is ‘cognitive computing’ – teaching computers how to learn, reason and communicate and ultimately to make decisions. It is a method by which computers learn how to perform tasks traditionally carried out by humans.

Man and machine have customarily interacted in the learning procedure, using computer queries to create searches based on keywords. Smart machines, however, go further: identifying patterns in data, creating new patterns, testing hypotheses and finding solutions not familiar to the human programmer.

But what next? Will machine learning render the traditional lawyer redundant? Research on the potential for automation within legal services by McKinsey & Co suggested that 23% of time for lawyers could be automated (interestingly, surgeons shared the same percentage estimate for potential automation). The McKinsey study assessed the ‘automatability’ of certain legal tasks. Information retrieval, a cognitive capability, was regarded as far easier to automate than a social capability. Other studies have suggested, perhaps understandably, that the more structured and repetitive the task and the more predictable and manageable the work, the more successful the degree of automation will be.

AI organises huge amounts of data faster, better and cheaper, empowering humans to make better decisions and generate new ideas. AI is already working hard in the law, with more accessible legal research and some document automation reducing my time spent on essential tasks. Administrative support is given by a natural language processing assistant, ‘Siri’. E-discovery technology solutions already exist to manage the production of huge volumes of electronically stored data during the process of litigation. The AI management of vast amounts of due diligence data as part of any corporate merger or acquisition eventually may be quicker and more thorough than overworked junior lawyers burning the midnight oil.

As with all emerging technologies, the legal ramifications of AI require consideration. Data privacy and safeguarding considerations will be particularly relevant in the choice of AI-related services given the forthcoming General Data Protection Regulation (in force May 2018). Law enforcement access to data in particular cases will create various legal challenges to be legislated. A regulatory framework will be developed to address questions of liability and damages. Intellectual property protection of innovative AI technologies and inventions will thrive and patent litigation may proliferate. Professional ethics dilemmas will arise where AI solutions provide legal advice.

Legal outcomes are rarely predictable and often the law entails highly varied and unstructured work. It has been suggested that complex tasks requiring a significant degree of emotional, rather than artificial, intelligence will not be automated in the near future. Cognitive technologies using smart algorithms can only go so far in the quest for cheaper and quicker legal services. The fun of the law for many is its ambiguity and equivocation, making it more difficult to bend to formal models of reasoning. It is an exciting time to be a lawyer!

Should lawyers be worried by AI? It will certainly have a far-reaching effect on the future of the legal profession. It is, however, just one more weapon in the industry’s legal armoury, augmenting knowledge, creating efficiencies and facilitating response times. The sometimes-tedious routine tasks can simply be left to the machines, freeing up time for the more creative, interesting and added-value legal pursuits for clients.

Take note, robot floor cleaner beneath my feet, there will still be a human lawyer at my desk for some time to come.

This article is for general information purposes only and does not constitute legal or professional advice. It should not be used as a substitute for legal advice relating to your particular circumstances. Please note that the law may have changed since the date of this article.