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Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) are two of the key buzzwords used in legal technology circles and increasingly promoted to lawyers and practice managers in the form of a range of products which claim to improve efficiency. So what exactly is AI and ML and how can they be used by law firms?
The traditional image of Artificial Intelligence is that of a computer or robot with some form of autonomous thinking. But the current meaning of AI is very far removed from Hollywood science fiction. Legal technology described as utilising AI essentially refers to sophisticated software which has been programmed to automate routine and often rather mundane tasks.
Machine Learning is computer software which has the ability to learn certain tasks and improve these skills according to direction and feedback from humans. ML normally comes under the umbrella of Artificial Intelligence.
Another subset of AI is natural language processing (NLP), whereby the software can understand written (or, if it has speech recognition abilities, verbal) natural language queries. In other words, NLP allows a human to interact with software without needing to understand any computer code.
AI is being used by some law firms to analyse large volumes of data (Big Data) in order to identify pertinent information, spot discrepancies or find patterns, all of which would normally take much longer if done manually by lawyers. For example, contract analysis tools use AI software to scan contracts or other legal documents, looking for any wording which needs to be updated in light of new legislation. More advanced methods of Big Data analysis include Predictive coding, a form of technology assisted review (TAR) used to assess the relevance of high volumes of documents for purposes of electronic disclosure. Furthermore, case prediction tools use AI to predict likely outcomes of cases by analysing historical court judgments to find patterns.
Other AI tools are being deployed by firms to help automate certain tasks. At the most basic end, the humble spell checker which is now integrated with most word processing and email packages uses Machine Learning to adapt to the user’s writing style. Meanwhile, AI-assisted billing software combines time recording apps and practice management systems to streamline end of month billing. And digital dictation solutions using NLP are now sufficiently advanced to create client letters with minimal input from a legal secretary.
The AI tool used by the legal sector which perhaps most closely resembles the sci-fi concept of Artificial Intelligence is the chatbot. Clerksroom’s Billy Bot is probably the best known legal chatbot, taking the form of a virtual barrister’s clerk and attempting to field website queries to the correct point of contact. A number of law firms also have a chatbot integrated into their websites, taking the pressure off human receptions, and streamlining the process of handling online enquiries by potential clients.
One form of AI which will likely be transformative for the legal sector over the next few years is in the form of advanced legal research tools. NLP is already heavily used in search engines and virtual assistants. As systems gradually all begin to interface with each other, a lot of the routine work of lawyers may soon be achieved by a few voice commands.
However, despite all the exciting progress of AI in the legal technology sector, firms should always carefully consider the purpose of adopting a new piece of software. Any potential profit benefits should be weighed against the costs of licencing fees and time spent on integration and updates. Also, if AI tools have a direct impact on clients, it will be worth assessing whether this will be welcomed by the majority of clients.
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