The double-edged sword of “smart” technology is ever present as we have seen the rise of automation offer new levels of convenience and accuracy while creating concerns about human worker displacement and privacy. Much of the direction this technology will ultimately take is dependent upon how knowledgeable we are about the uses and misuses so that we can ensure we are heading in a beneficial direction for humanity.
Our legal system pervades nearly all of our daily interactions whether we consciously realize it or not, so it stands to reason that any changes or enhancements in this area could carry greater fundamental impact than we might imagine. The last several years have witnessed greater advancements in legal tech than previous decades combined. These new tools, if used properly, could result in more streamlined and accurate legal communications within and between law firms and the legal system, while simultaneously offering consumers more direct access and participation with reduced costs.
Let’s look at some of the most transformative technologies that are now coming online.
Does anyone remember life before Amazon, Yelp, Tripadvisor and the myriad other review sites? For those who were not alive during such a time, I would imagine that it’s nearly inconceivable that one would be limited to literal word of mouth to find a destination or product review. The notion of community based reviews was so powerful that it predictably moved from products and basic services to professional services. It is now of course possible to use the various rating systems built within the largest social media platforms and standalone apps to comment and offer star-based reviews of nearly anything. Legal tech startup Advokatguiden.no has focused on using the same innovative concept to revolutionize the way clients find their lawyer, introducing the opportunity to review all of Norway’s 10,000 legal professionals. The end goal is precisely the same: increase client/consumer knowledge to enable more informed choice through the centralized pooling of distributed information.
Artificial intelligence is at the core of how nearly all information in our modern world is collected and analyzed. The legal profession of course contains repositories of information across an incredibly complex network of individuals and corporations, as well as local and national governments. In many cases, collection, analysis and communication must span disciplines and languages. A.I. has become integral in case review, contracts, audits, updates to regulations, automated chatbots for prospective clients, bots that can help fill out legal forms, virtual assistants, as well as the more controversial area of machine learning and predictive analytics. As Katie Gibbs noted in Medium:
The use of AI to determine whether a case should be taken on or not is now common place in large law firms and it was recently announced that AI has been used to predict decisions of the European Court of Human Rights to 79% accuracy.
Machine learning also can create an “adaptive experience” in order to anticipate the human needs of all parties involved. For an attorney it might look like this:
Note that AI is not doing legal work for the attorney but is “pre-filtering:” identifying factual and contextual analysis that gives the attorney information and clues as to where issues may arise in downstream negotiations or activities. AI software, having been trained on previously vetted documents and their nominal language, can compare the current document with all that it was previously trained on and determine where anomalies occur, thereby reducing the attorney’s analysis time. (Source)
For the client, it might manifest throughout all of the digital search and communication portals that anticipate and direct information to offer a much more tailored experience.
The use of A.I. for fundamental data cataloguing, retrieval, and basic communications appears to be the areas where both firms and clients can benefit. However, the law is also infused with ethics and more nebulous concepts such as “fairness,” which is where the use of A.I. has faced far more scrutiny. Will we eventually see fully automated lawyers and judges? That might be a bridge too far.
The era of COVID-19 has introduced social distancing into our lexicon, and more people find themselves working from home. It is easy to see how greater access to all of the world’s information – including its legal framework – could prove beneficial through the many advancements in legal technology. The trend in virtual law firms already had begun prior to the outbreak, and is likely only to accelerate as companies will begin to see the benefits of reducing overhead and transportation costs, while increasing overall efficiency. The result is bound to be more profitable as billable time is optimized.
Younger generations have become particularly accustomed to retrieving their information and communicating from anywhere in the world that has reliable internet access. Due to advancements in automation, nearly all of the management templates, billing programs, and contract features can be operated from remote locations – even cooperatively through cloud sharing. Moreover, the new spike in distance learning will “turbo charge” law schools to fully embrace the digital age, which will greatly impact the entire legal supply chain.
Naturally, when it comes to sensitive legal information, cybersecurity is an area of particular concern, which is where encryption and the blockchain can prove useful. Blockchain tech would seem a perfect fit for the legal profession, as its best use-cases promote transparency, identity verification, permanent recording of information, and end-to-end encryption if need be. But perhaps the most transformative area where blockchain could be of service is in the creation of smart contracts and dispute resolution. As Forbes outlined:
Blockchain could also make room for “smart contracts,” where assets would be transferred automatically once certain conditions are met. A system like this could resolve disputes very directly and efficiently, saving lawyers and their clients a great deal of work. This also could mean the end of escrow accounts where the law firm holds onto money and distributes funds once conditions have been met.
Essentially, this provides the framework for a “trustless” system where corruption and theft are greatly reduced and, thus, all of the attendant costs to clients.
As we navigate the choppy waters of our current situation, it will become paramount for us to use all of the new tools that technology provides. The consequences of errors, inefficiencies, and corruption within our legal system gravely affect our economy and the concept of justice itself. A revolution in legal technology could prove to be an essential component toward much wider and impactful reform to the human condition.