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Round Table Event 3/6

08/10/2018

The third of LAW Absolute’s roundtables concerned the shifting sands of the legal market in the face of significant disruptions arising from the growing incidence and influence of technology. The following is a summation of the topics discussed at the round table.

The Landscape

One of the opening points raised brought attention to the significant paucity of realistic commentary on how firms, legal or otherwise, experience technological innovation. A particular issue is the apparent lack of understanding as to what technology can and cannot do for a lawyer. To the uninitiated, the capabilities of legal tech seem boundless, and to the sage the boundaries are constrained by several factors including attitude to change and financial restrictions. It would not be unfair to say that the wider legal market is ignorant of what constitutes ‘AI’ compared to the systems firms are using - indeed, the revelation that at present the bulk of legal tech innovation is focused on Boolean search and statistical models applied to ‘big data’ (so, machine learning) is belied by the sci-fi perception of AI propagated by the media. This information gap ought to be corrected.

So what can legal tech do?

The table below reflects discussions had on the current status of and anticipated developments in legal tech and its applications.

Technology

Time Frame

Function

Limitations

Data point extraction

Present

Identifying words, names, dates: basic data taxonomy

Limited by size and quality of data bases available

Obligation extraction

Present – 5 years for some

Identifying what constitutes a clause, differentiating between clauses

Again, quality of data input

Risk analysis of clauses

5 years+

Identifying clauses and being able to consider these against a business scenario to analyse and potentially advise on risk

Due to nuanced semantics and differing human perceptions of risk, there are challenges in implementing and calibrating this technology for commercial use

Figure One – Anticipated legal tech developments

Whilst this is a layperson’s interpretation of what, admittedly, was a highly technical conversation it does elucidate the constraints on legal tech’s influence as well as drawing back Armageddon-style predictions for the industry. Machine learning will undoubtedly act as a significant disruptor, but there are certain aspects of legal practice that mean the profession as it stands is in a position to flourish rather than falter, providing that certain practices and cultures are adopted.

What can law firms do?

There was a common understanding at this roundtable that law firms and GCs have a wealth of data at their fingertips comprised of rulings, company performance measures, and contracts to name just three. Rendering this data accessible and categorising it is one of the major barriers to being able to apply statistical models – and therefore increase legal tech’s efficacy. It goes without saying that this will require a great deal of financial investment and for some a novel cultural approach. Once this costly (but rudimentary) process is undertaken, technologies will have a tangible foothold to exert substantial influence on the value chain of legal services. 

The changing legal value chain

Document review, which sits at that the base of the legal value chain has been revolutionised by eDiscovery; which uses basic data point extraction technology to identify issues across large document banks at low cost. It remains to be seen how far up the value chain technology can climb. A key constraint discussed was how much value top legal work adds through the human interpretation of risk alongside the management of client expectations. At present, this is not something a technological platform can generally provide, but there are certain reported examples of technology exceeding human judgement in accurately predicting court outcomes (the US Supreme Court study led by Daniel Katz being one of the more prominent examples) and clearly a Boolean search responding with 100% identification accuracy is more efficient than any human system.

Where does this leave trainees?

In accepting the notion that eDiscovery and basic contract automation functions will be progressively taken over by ‘the machine’, conversation moved on to the education of junior lawyers - traditionally tasked with this type of work. An ironic dialectic of these lawyers needing to have a working knowledge of legal tech, whilst also being able to participate in the mundane and repetitive tasks so enjoyed by their more senior predecessors, raised a line of questioning pertaining to what a good lawyer will proceed to look like and how this training will manifest itself. Junior lawyers gain much through basic document preparation and research, but this is in the process of being lost to some extent. The new generation of lawyers will also need to be familiar with technology to extract its usefulness, and education at the LPC and training contract levels must include more technological teaching. It was largely agreed that juggling both of these concerns will prove difficult, and will have great bearing on the future of the legal industry.

Questions of Culture

The cumulative disruptive power of technology in the legal sector remains to be seen. Ultimately, the extent to which technology impacts firms will be determined by their efforts to engage it. Pressure from non-traditional legal entities is influencing firms in many ways, for example clients questioning billing practices, and law firms are also being forced to evolve in response to changing societal demands around agile working, diversity, and wellbeing to name a few. As an industry law is frequently seen as risk averse, slow to change, and generally reactive. Despite such perceptions the industry has survived and prospered, hence the above warnings in maintaining an apocalyptic narrative. The final topic of discussion concerned the importance of altering the culture of the legal profession to accept more change, and we look forward to exploring this further at a future roundtable.

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  • Freddy Bouttell
  • Graduate Consultant
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Freddy joined LAW Absolute after graduating with a BA in Geography from the…

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