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Artificial intelligence is inevitable. Will you embrace or resist it in your practice?

August 9, 2017
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(IL illustration/Brad Turner and Shutterstock.com)

Growing up, Kightlinger and Gray LLP attorney Adam Ira can recall members of his family, many of whom were factory workers, expressing concerning about the prospect of automated machines taking their jobs. Now, Ira said similar concerns are creeping into his work as a lawyer, as the rise of artificial intelligence in the practice of law has begun automating legal tasks previously performed by humans.

As the number of available AI products grows, attorneys have begun to gravitate toward tools that enable them to do their work quickly and more efficiently. Artificial intelligence can come in multiple forms, legal tech experts say, from simple document automation to more complex “intelligence” using algorithms to predict legal outcomes.

In recent months, several new AI products have been introduced with the promise of automating the mundane tasks of being a lawyer, leaving attorneys with more time to focus on the complex legal questions raised by their clients.

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For example, Seattle-based TurboPatent Corp. launched an AI tool in mid-July known as RoboReview. Through RoboReview, patent attorneys can upload a patent application into the AI software, which then scans the document and assesses it for similarities to previous patent applications and uses the level of similarity to predict patent eligibility. RoboReview can also make other predictions about the patent process, such as how long the process might take or what actions the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office may take with the application, said Dave Billmaier, TurboPatent vice president of product marketing.

Shortly after RoboReview went public, Amy Wan, attorney and founder and CEO of Bootstrap Legal, introduced an AI product that automates the process of drafting legal paperwork for people trying to raise capital for a real estate project of $2 million or less. As a former real estate securities attorney, Wan said she witnessed firsthand how inefficient the process of drafting such documents could be, especially considering that much of the work involved routine tasks such as copying and pasting from previous documents.

With Wan’s AI product, users answer questions about their real estate project, and the software uses those answers to develop the necessary legal documents, which are returned to the user within 48 hours. Such technology expedites drafting the documents — a process she said could otherwise take 20 to 25 hours to complete — while also cutting the costs associated with raising real estate capital. Wan said her company and AI product are based on the principle that cost considerations should not prevent people from accessing legal services.

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Saving time and cutting costs are AI advantages that serve as the key selling points for legal tech developers, as clients have come to expect their attorneys to use modern technology to perform efficient work at the lowest possible cost, said Jason Houdek, a patent and intellectual property attorney with Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP. Though RoboReview is new, Houdek said he has been using similar AI tools to determine patent eligibility, ensure application quality and predict patent examiner behavior for several years.

Similarly, Haley Altman, CEO of Indianapolis-based Doxly Inc., said most legal tech entrepreneurs like her are trying to develop AI tools that take large sets of data or documents and extrapolate the relevant information lawyers are looking for, thus reducing the amount of time they spend combing through documents. The Doxly software, which is designed to automate the legal transaction process, uses AI to mimic a transactional attorney’s natural workflow, making the software feel natural, she said.

Job security?

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Despite these benefits, some attorneys are concerned that continued use of AI in the practice of law could put them out of a job. Further, Jim Billmaier, TurboPatent CEO, said the “old guard” of attorneys, those who have been in practice for many years, can be inclined to resist artificial intelligence tools because they go against traditional practice.

There may be some legitimacy to those concerns, the attorneys and legal tech experts said. For example, attorneys at large firms that still employ the typical billable-hour model could see a drop in their hours as a result of AI products, said Dan Carroll with vrsus LLC, a rebranded version of legal tech company CasePacer. The vrsus technology utilizes AI to enable attorneys at plaintiffs’ firms to reach outcomes for their clients as quickly as possible, rather than focusing on how many hours they are able to bill, Carroll said.

Similarly, certain practice areas that are more transactional in nature, such as bankruptcy or tax law, might be more susceptible to automation, Ira said.

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But such automation is now inevitable, as further AI development is a matter of when, not if, Houdek said. Jim Billmaier agreed and noted that attorneys who are resistant to AI advancements will find themselves underperforming if they choose not to take advantage of tools that increase efficiency.

While technological advancements might be inevitable, they do not have to be uncontrollable, said Ira Smith, vrsus chief strategy officer. Few attorneys fully understand the nuances of what makes AI work, Smith said, yet few tech developers, such as IBM, understand the nuances of practicing law.

As a result, attorneys and legal tech companies should focus less on how new artificial intelligence products might change their work and instead try to mold whatever AI tools are currently on the market to improve the product of their work, Smith said. He encouraged attorneys to be “product agnostic” and focus less on the technological platform and more on technology’s possible benefits.

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“Why would it matter whether (IBM’s) Watson is utilizing my data as long as I can take that and serve it back to my clients?” Smith said.

Human advantage

Even as legal tech and other companies offer new and ever more advanced AI products, attorneys said the human mind will always be needed in the practice of law.

For example, even if a computer becomes “intelligent” enough to draw up contracts on its own, lawyers will still need to review and finalize them, Altman said. Ira agreed and noted that use of AI can create ethical issues, as attorneys must ensure the automated documents they produce reflect accurate and competent work.

Further, the power of persuasion is a trait that is uniquely human, and one that is critical to the practice of law, Ira said. Though an “intelligent” computer might able to cobble together a legal argument one day — an advancement he thinks is still at least 10 to 15 years off — it could never speak to a judge or a jury in a manner meant to persuade and effectively advocate on behalf of a client, Ira said.

Similarly, judges will always be needed to use their minds and legal training to decide the outcome of cases, Houdek said, and human juries will always be needed to decide cases.

Though some human jobs or billable hours might decrease as a result of advancements in artificial intelligence, the legal tech experts said AI is more of a benefit than a threat because it allows legal professionals to use their minds and training for the creative work that comes with being an attorney.

“AI technology isn’t taking their jobs,” Altman said. “The whole point of it is to enable them to do the work that they really want to be focusing on.”•

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