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Artificial intelligence is here - and it is set to transform legal practice


The artificial intelligence revolution is gathering pace and no part of legal practice will be left untouched, writes legal commentator Morry Bailes.

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When South Korea’s reigning Go master was beaten by artificial intelligence last year I published a column about the future of law. While a computer defeating a gaming champion seemed innocuous enough, the gravity of that event, given the complexity of Go, was significant. It has flow-on effects for all businesses, including law firms.

Little over a year later, a Google-powered AI has just defeated China’s best Go player, Ke Jie, who is also the world’s No.1 player. It demonstrates the continued advance of AI and march of the machine.

How then is this relevant to the practise of law and to professional services? How will it shape our industry?

To say AI is on the way is wrong. AI has arrived. Large firms are deploying it now. Corrs is in a joint-venture arrangement with Beagle, a legal AI that simplifies contract analysis. Beagle is but one of many like products set to revolutionise the delivery of professional services.

When I first published on the future of the law in InDaily, my forecasts were greeted with scepticism by some of the local profession. However, a large interstate firm partner predicted to me recently that their business model is going to be “exploded”. Simply, an AI machine will take over some tasks from lawyers, ranging from document and case management to legal research and reasoning, even interpersonal communication and interaction.

AIs, of course, do not simply operate by themselves. They require experienced lawyers to train them, but once ‘trained’ the human element is reduced or eliminated.

There remain important questions. When the machines move in, and elders of the law move out, how will new lawyers learn their trade? There is also intense debate about whether the human element will remain in a reinvented role or whether some practitioners will be redundant. How many lawyers will be needed in the future?

This brave new world will inevitably make its way into the courts. In Britain and the US it already has. The VALCRI system – or Visual Analytics for Sense-Making in Criminal Intelligence Analysis – has been deployed by the West Midlands Police. It is an AI billed as “the system that makes connections humans often miss”. Algorithms will be relied upon to identify suspects, but what will courts make of such methods?

Further, crime scene recreation will inevitably use AI. Will jurors accept a judge’s direction that what is seen by them is merely a recreation, or will they believe they are being shown what actually happened?

There is inherent danger in attributing the same qualities to artifical intelligence as human intelligence. Human intelligence, after all, is the creator and benefactor. AI is imbued with nothing more than what we give it. Its limits remain how we choose to use it.

The casualties may be younger lawyers in a world that needs less of them, just as law schools produce more and more.

How much of this is speculative imagining? The Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, John Roberts, was recently asked to imagine a day when machines will do this work. His reply was: “It’s a day that’s here and its putting significant strain on how the judiciary goes about doing things.”

There are, thus, significant challenges, as we examine our Evidence Acts to include the good and weed out the bad when it comes to the courts’ use of AI-engineered evidence, as there will be for regulators of legal professionals to determine how much of the law must remain human, and the extent to which lawyers bear ethical responsibility for their machines’ work .

Presently the dystopian vision of the law is an exaggerated one. AIs are tools of trade.  They are taking over processes, not taking over the law. They can potentially make smarter, better lawyers. Nevertheless, as we approach the eighth anniversary of British Professor Richard Susskind’s seminal work The End of Lawyers, it is plain his vision for the future of professional services was correct. Perhaps, more accurately, one might better phrase it as “the end of some lawyers”, although some believe AI will both terminate and create jobs for lawyers.

The gulf between big and small firms has never felt wider, but the opinion of many within big firms is AI and technology are the very things that will let smaller firms (if adequately equipped) ‘get through the gate’ and compete. Equally there are some small firms and high street practitioners for whom the new reality has not even dawned.

The casualties may be younger lawyers in a world that needs less of them, just as law schools produce more and more. However, that is not a prediction – it is just one of multiple possible outcomes. If the legal profession is ultimately smaller, the industry sitting around it will be larger. And guess what? Younger lawyers are the ones happiest to be rid of the rote work. They are also the smartest, although lacking in experience, so I am not writing off their prospects yet.

The greatest danger posed by AI may be it is only as good as the humans who invent, code and train it. It can inherit the inventors’ and trainers’ biases. Thus, the adoption of machine-produced evidence must be treated with necessary scepticism in criminal prosecutions, for example.

Back in the business world however, where money can be saved and processes abbreviated, the advance of AI will continue to gather pace. There is the prospect that it will give access to legal services to those who cannot currently afford it. Basic information about court processes, the law itself, and all number of other salient topics and products, may be accessible in a way presently not. Given the alarming statistics about the level of unmet legal need globally, such eventualities must be regarded as the positive side of AI. And as our fees fall our clients will increase. The practise of the law still has legs in it, but it is changing.

There is much to consider with the rise and rise of the machine. Whereas the 20th century saw a revolution in industrial production, the 21st century is seeing a revolution of professional services. There is no part of the legal profession that will remain untouched. Our regulators will be expected to keep a pace in order to allow lawyers to remain competitive, for wherever we leave a vacuum it is bound to be filled. There are already challenges for the courts, and there is the revision of business models and a re-assessment as to the role of lawyers and who and how many will be required. There is also the very relevant question of how the future lawyer ought be prepared and educated.

Bill Gates once said the advance of technology after two years disappoints, but after 10 years exceeds expectation. I think we are moving toward the second part of this cycle. The defeat of Ke Jie at the hands of Google was small news; after the defeat of South Korea’s Lee Sedol last year we expected it. The talk of AI in firms is no longer conjecture. It is reality. The shift in our understanding and acceptance of these technologies is noticeable, not just in law. All of us will be impacted by our silicon masters.

Morry Bailes is the managing partner at Tindall Gask Bentley Lawyers, president-elect of the Law Council of Australia and is a past president of the Law Society of SA. The opinions expressed in this column are his own.

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