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Artificial intelligence is not robot lawyers

When we look back at 2017, will we describe it as an age of anxiety? It certainly feels that way at the moment.

We have seen populist surges across the Western world driven by economic uncertainty and demographic shifts. A media cycle has gone beyond 24 hours to an onslaught of fake news and instant updates.

In the legal profession, that anxiety is felt like everywhere else, and one of its symptoms is the fear that we will be replaced by robots. Document review that used to take an army of associates is done in seconds. Online DIY wills are getting smarter and more efficient all the time, eliminating the need for a lawyer entirely even in complex situations.

The fear of robot lawyers is often raised in the context of artificial intelligence. But as Jordan Furlong points out in our cover story on AI, much of this fear is misplaced. What is actually occurring in this area is a lot more interesting, yet perhaps less dramatic, than the mass production of human-like robots.

“What machines give you is the option to get access to more and more data faster and cheaper — that’s the real core of it,” David Holme, CEO of Exigent, told us. It is about speed — finding more information and processing it lightning fast.

But applying that, like any high-speed device, requires deep expertise. “Who are your experts on certain legal issues? Do they have memos or briefs? Where are they? Can we access them? Can we search them? It’s almost a back-office function. It’s not quite decision-making, but it helps in decision-making,” points out Scott Ferrauiola, associate GC at Watson IBM.

Answering that sounds to me like a million legal jobs in waiting.

But the effects may not only be on the back-office function. Benjamin Alarie, who designed software that can predict with greater than 90-per-cent accuracy what a tax court would hold in new circumstances, points out that his product may have a dramatic impact on the likelihood of settlement. While some aggressive litigators may chafe at the prospect, most lawyers will accept that as positive outcome for our justice system.

But even those working to design tools that use artificial intelligence won’t tell you there are no risks. When AI is incorporated into the mundane tasks, it can sometimes result in a loss of accountability for the serious impacts. Unintentional biases are being uncovered in many areas where AI is being used, including job-hunting websites, credit reporting bureaus, social media sites and even the criminal justice system.

As any lawyer can tell you, completing a mundane task multiple times is often necessary to understand the bigger picture. Associates who are asked to draft contracts over and over come away with an understanding of the nuances. Speaking to dozens of clients for a simple will could help you identify other bigger legal issues.

Like much of the anxiety felt these days, the antidote is to slow down, unplug for a bit and look at the reality of what is actually happening. There are many urgent problems facing the legal profession. But being overtaken by robot lawyers is not one of them.