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Letting the electrons do the work

Thursday, October 06, 2016 @ 8:00 PM | By Chris Bentley and Hersh Perlis


Artificial intelligence and automation: Do they mean the end of lawyers? That seems to be the focus of the debate. Unfortunately, it misses the real opportunity. We should be asking what do they do for your practice today? And what might they do tomorrow? Could they make your practice more efficient, or help you serve your clients in a more timely or effective way? Those who would like to serve your clients will be looking at these evolving technologies. Maybe it is time to step back, look at how AI and automation are being used and consider the possibilities for the future.

Automation and artificial intelligence are quite different but both work off the premise that processes and solutions, once programmed, can be performed without further human interaction. Automation involves a programmer creating a model which can handle very complicated but repetitive interactions. The model breaks the issues down (essentially) into a series of questions and answers. A subject-matter expert provides all of the relevant information, answers and pathways to input into the model. After that, the model generates results from any number of users without further interaction with the expert.

Artificial intelligence (or machine learning) involves a developer building a program with the ability to learn through repetition. As the program takes in more data it “learns,” and the outputs will change accordingly. The outcome or output is not pre-programmed or limited by a subject-matter expert. The power and complexity of the programs vary widely.

Neota Logic, an automation platform developer, is one of the leaders in this new and emerging world of legal automation. They can automate the delivery of anything from specific expertise to the product of complex processes and workflows. Conversations with them suggest that setting up an automated process could take as little as weeks or a few months, even though it involves many data points. Their system has already been used by a number of Bay Street law firms, and theirs is a well-recognized name in the United States.

New Mexico Legal Aid used Neota Logic to help design the front end of their system to provide a seamless, 24/7 service to potential applicants that does not depend on people, hours or offices. Their automated process might provide a complete answer, help narrow the issues or provide a pathway to the user. The users are naturally many and varied, and most would not be particularly familiar with the legal system.

The advantages are obvious. The expert has control over the message, and the users receive consistent, timely direction. The cost per transaction is small once it is set up.

MyLawBC is a service developed by Legal Services Society that provides legal aid in B.C. It is a joint effort with Hiil, the Dutch developers of the Rechtwijzer legal journey system, and Modria, the U.S. outfit that developed the dispute resolution system for eBay (among others).

Soft-launched early this year, it uses technology to help people navigate the family law process and also helps them prepare documents such as a separation agreement or a will. Technology is allowing MyLawBC to reimagine the front end of the user experience and develop an approach to help those who want to resolve their issues before and outside court, with huge advantages for many (potential) litigants. This is the same general approach the Ryerson Legal Innovation Zone’s Family Reform Community Collaboration concluded could be taken in Ontario.

Ross Intelligence, developed using IBM’s Watson technology, is a powerful AI research engine that can do in seconds what takes people hours. They have a special focus on labour and employment research. It is already seen by some of the biggest firms as something they need to participate in. Just last year Denton’s NextLaw Labs both invested in and formed a partnership with Ross. Soon after, Ross announced partnerships or pilots with over 20 other U.S. law firms.

AI has many other faces and uses. For example, E-Discovery is a massive industry using various AI products. Some recent developments involve tools that can review work, find errors and correct them. The recent “pitch” competition put on by the Canadian Bar Association had several finalists using AI. For example, the winner, Beagle, uses it to analyze contracts — learning your preferences as you keep using it. Another finalist, Blue J Legal, helps find an answer to important employment and tax questions. Codify Legal Publishing is a finalist in the Ontario Access to Justice Challenge with a product that provides up to date legislative and regulatory sections with amendments and changes incorporated in real time into them.

Whether lawyers themselves consider the possibilities, or have entrepreneurs do it for them, technology might let you redesign your business. The business case will decide whether you proceed. It is not simply how the systems could apply to your practice, but how others might use them to serve your clients in a different way. Reimagining the formation and delivery of services is happening in every other business, but has been slow to come to the law.

Which brings us to the discussion about the “end,” or not the end? Let’s simply say this. Better to focus on the possibilities that technology might bring. Remember not to define the future by what we see as the limitations of technology today. Five years ago, few were speaking about either AI or automation. Then the technology improved.

Chris Bentley is the executive director of the Legal Innovation Zone and the law practice program, Ryerson University and Hersh Perlis is a director of the Legal Innovation Zone.