Beware the bursting of law’s artificial intelligence bubble

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By Alex Aldridge on

Legal tech is a long story of incremental change, not revolution


First tech came for the music industry, then it disrupted film and TV, soon after moving onto the newspapers before hitting the banking industry. Next up after fintech? Lawtech, with added robots…

That was the narrative getting bandied around parts of the technology community last year. It was certainly helped by the landmark case of Pyrrho Investments v MWB Property, which saw the use of artificial intelligence-derived ‘predictive coding’ in document review approved by the English courts for the first time. Further substance was provided by the government’s announcement following its review of civil justice that it was to plough £1 billion into boosting the primitive digital capability of the nation’s creaking court system. Tech had arrived in the legal profession.

Soon a slew of press releases from legal software companies and ‘innovative’ law firms started appearing — many of them leveraging off the Pyrrho Investments case to suggest that Bladerunner-style robots were about to take over the legal profession. Amid much ante-upping, the march of machines accelerated beyond paralegals to lawyers and finally to QCs and judges. Even the Lord Chief Justice got in on the act, telling a conference in autumn that “it is probably correct to say that as soon as we have better statistical information, artificial intelligence using that statistical information will be better at predicting the outcome of cases than the most learned Queen’s Counsel.” The legal press — including Legal Cheek — lapped this stuff up.

But the reality that soon began to emerge was that the artificial intelligence being promoted was ‘soft AI’, a very different type of technology to the sci-fi stuff, which is known as ‘hard AI’ and remains in its infancy. Indeed, some argue that soft AI — algorithms of a not especially new type that are “inspired by” the human brain — is not AI at all. What these computer programmes most certainly need is human beings to place what they come up with in context and help it to make sense. Some of the challenges around practical implementation are also significant. Those learned QCs may be OK after all.

By the time everyone had realised this, it was too late. The AI genie was out of the bottle — and under pressure editors had news quotas to fill. The previously obscure and often ignored legal tech community found that they could get stories about highly niche pieces new software published if they uttered the magic ‘AI’ words to journalists — and even began to admit this publicly. Non-tech people started pulling similar tricks, with a proliferation of legal recruiters suddenly discovering their inner Silicon Valley to bill themselves as ‘Uber for lawyers’.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of impressionable wannabe lawyers were taking this stuff deadly seriously. Student reaction to AI falls broadly into two camps. The first is fear that they’ve chosen the wrong career. Rapid technological development means they’ll never get a training contract, and even if they do will be on the scrap heap a couple of years later. Angsty, super-keen LLBers are susceptible to this interpretation. The second camp, by contrast, are highly optimistic that tech will herald some kind of utopian new age where lawyers lounge around chic former warehouses dressed as hipsters not doing much work but earning loads. This latter reaction is common among non-law students doing the GDL because their parents insisted on it.

Both categories of students can be found in training contract interviews around the country earnestly telling panels of faintly baffled corporate lawyers about their plans to learn to code.

Not that this is a bad objective. Just like learning a language, being able to code computer programmes is a useful skill which shows a breadth of interest and could come in handy in an ancillary way in a law firm (although it probably won’t help with ‘AI-assisted’ document review which is conducted via a standard user interface that does not require coding skills). Coding knowledge will also, to a certain extent, help young lawyers better interact with their firm’s technology company clients.

It’s also sensible for students to be thinking about technology in a more general sense. Just because there is hype doesn’t mean some developments aren’t real. Indeed, many large law firms are pouring significant amounts of money into new soft AI and data analysis technology that they believe can, over time, improve the way they operate. Some of this software will work, some won’t — but smart people are judging it worth the expense to find out and they are worth listening to.

There are plenty of interesting conversations to be had about this, including on the topic of whether such software poses a threat to law graduates. This was explored by Legal Cheek‘s Tom Connelly and Katie King in their recent interview with Professor Richard Susskind, who did his doctorate on AI way back in the 1980s and has long been one of the most respected voices about technology in the legal sector.

But before you panic, recall the mania about offshore legal process outsourcing that from 2010-2012 swept the profession in much the same way as AI has been recently. Despite many associated predictions of rookie lawyer carnage, training contract numbers have held steady since then, and actually rose by 9% last year to their highest level since the 2008 financial crisis.

A month into 2017 and, perhaps hastened by the new less tech industry-friendly regime in Washington DC, there is already a sense that AI credulity is swinging towards sceptism. The word in the City is that fintech is looking frothy and may not be the instant gamechanger that some have been presenting it as, while in recent weeks the Financial Times and The Telegraph have run high profile pieces questioning the benefits of recent developments in the wider AI sector.

An AI hairbrush that remembers the contours of your head is being singled out for particular ridicule amid suspicion that the new frontier of ‘Internet of Things’ may not be things that consumers want or find useful. Expect this mood to reach the legal profession. And when it does, robot law is going to have start delivering — and fast — or risk being swept away by the next big trend.

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