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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 Unfortunately most firms still employ out of date systems that needlessly hinder lawyers from working remotely as much as they should be able to.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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26 Comments

Anonymous

I work for a SC firm that brags about it’s IT investment. Think it was recently over 10 million.

Despite this hardly anything pre populates, MI remains a manual task completed by fee earners and not billed to clients and dictation is completed by home based secretaries rather than software packages automatically typing.

Anonymous

Is Silver Circle a thing anymore?

Anonymous

Are CMS silver circle?

Anonymous

hahahaahhaahaaha this made me laugh

Anonymous

Silver Circle is mainly top 20 aside from Magic.

Anonymous

Hogan, HSF, BLP, (was SJB), Macfarlanes, Travers. That has always been the case.

Anonymous

Are CMS a silver circle law firm?

Anonymous

No – somewhere between silver and magic circle. Like DLA, Norton Rose etc.

Anonymous

Seventh circle of hell firm

Anonymous

Why?

Anonymous

If you have to ask you won’t understand

Anonymous

Top top firm

John Simons

No

Someone quite senior

Emperor’s Clothes is actually very apt. Like all the trends when they reach a later stage this is propelled by fear of not being part of the group. “WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU ARE NOT INNOVATIVE?!” From a business perspective, it’s sensible for managing partners to make the right noises and flip a few million at some glossy AI product, before moving on to the next trend.

Anonymous

Are you Andrew Leatherpants?

Anonymous

The emperor is clearly wearing clothes in the picture, which defeats the object of the story.

Anonymous

I mean, ok, we have not all been replaced by robots. But if you compare the practice of law now to how it was 30 years ago — ie we do disclosure on massive cases by using discovery software not by going through cardboard boxes in a cold basement, and look up law reports on our laptops rather than in the Inn libraries — it’s pretty obvious that technology has been transformative. It’s also likely that it will continue to be so.

To take one example, CTRL+F is a simple tool but not one to be sniffed at: even 5 years ago it didn’t really work on many PDFs, now you can get software that can search even scans of manuscript quickly and relatively well – that IS something that machine learning has achieved in a short space of time.

I think this article makes the mistake of thinking that law tech is going to make legal practice look like the Jetsons, when in reality useful innovations (aka the tech we will actually adopt) simply make the stuff we need to do a bit easier.

Anonymous

Making scans of documents searchable is great, but it’s not AI or even machine learning (and products that do this should not be priced as such).

Anonymous

How do you think the scanning software improves over time? Do you think there is a person writing out the letters “a”, “b” etc in lots of different handwritings and then rewriting the code to recognise all the different forms? Optical character recognition a classic example of a field in which machine learning has improved performance. Google is your friend.

Anonymous

Fair point. And agree on your gradual progress point. Any other useful applications for machine learning in law that you can highlight? Genuinely interested.

Just a Tech Savvy Barristers Clerk

To be perfectly honest, it’s nothing sexy.

AI, Machine Learning and Workflow Automation in law can range from; using big data to tailor quotes to corporate clients, all the way down to using slack to prevent chain emails.

All in all, the end game is to save time and money

Anonymous

Insurers and banks are a long way ahead of law firms when it comes to this.

Law firms want efficiency gains but not at the expense of fee income.

Corporate partner

There are some tools which are next generation. Have a look at Scribestar, a collaboration word processor which automates check listing, blob models and verification of public documents like prospectuses and takeover documents. That exists because there is value in that area of the legal market so it is worth a software company investing.

Anonymous

Would someone please think of Susskind’s book royalties

Anonymous

The development arch of these technologies is that they’ll be restricted to a few users until the critical mass of data is available that makes the app valuable to those with no stake in it. Once a document reader (see Luminance or LawGeeks products) has, say, 1000 applications out there, it grows exponentially because data from each application teaches all others (like what happened with self-driving cars). So the author’s law firm might not yet see the employment impact, but there will be a point in a few years when the use of these tools grows so fast it is breathtaking … and regretfully jobtaking for junior or less-skilled staff

Anonymous

“at a leading City of London law firm”

That’s a new one.

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