Is the artificial intelligence emperor wearing any clothes?

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An anonymous associate at a leading City of London law firm notes a disconnect between their experience on the ground and the tech marketing noise

For at least a year I have been reading in the legal press how wonderful corporate law firms are with technology and how their pioneering work with artificial intelligence is unleashing a ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’/’profound paradigm shift’/’New Law 2.0 era’/insert buzz-term of choice that will fundamentally change the profession.

But when I look around all I can see is some new laptops and phones given to us by our supposedly tech-savvy firms. This despite my own employer aggressively marketing itself as some kind of futuristic Silicon Valley-style start-up.

Is my department unusually behind the times? The conclusion from speaking to colleagues in other teams and to friends at other firms is that in fact it is pretty standard. They too are not seeing much in the way of innovative tech. At the most it seems that there are some fairly tentative trials taking place using “machine learning” technology and other tools that in many cases don’t work better than existing tools. Some is simply repackaged ‘CTRL + F’ software.

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No wonder they have started referring to lawtech as GimmickLaw in the Legal Cheek reader comments. Reading around this topic more broadly, there is a chorus of sceptical voices that seem to be growing louder. I am no expert but I believe it when people tell me that artificial intelligence (AI) is highly complex and the speed of developments often very slow. It also seems eminently logical that a very large volume of high quality data is required to allow AI to function at all. Large law firms have an endless supply of documents but they are not always well organised or easily classified, nor do they always come in a standardised format.

Please don’t misunderstand the point I am trying to convey. The legal sector undoubtedly needs to improve technologically. I am aware of well-known firms using extremely old web browsers which are frankly a security risk. Unfortunately most firms still employ out of date systems that needlessly hinder lawyers from working remotely as much as they should be able to. It is true as well that document review can often be an extremely inefficient process and there is obviously room for improvement here. Also important is the fact that companies leading the globally influential S&P 500 are from the tech sector, and legal advisors must demonstrate that they are sufficiently progressive to understand their businesses and to an extent share their values.

However in the current marketing frenzy around lawtech, corporate law firms risk presenting themselves as something they are not. Perhaps more importantly they are failing to play to their strengths: the analytical ability, commercial expertise and understanding of the law possessed by their lawyers.

Based on conversations with vac schemers, I also worry about a generation of new trainees who have taken law firms’ innovation claims rather too literally entering the legal profession in the mistaken assumption that they are joining a branch of big tech. If my experience and those of my peers is representative, they may be surprised at what they find.

The writer is an associate at a major City law firm.

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