The rise of the super lawyer — or, the impact of AI on law

AI will transform law, but we will need to build the connections necessary first

Technology is set to transform the legal profession. In 10 or 20 years’ time the law industry will be dramatically different.

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But there’s nothing to fear. I strongly believe that job losses will be minimal — and rather than taking your seat, artificial intelligence will be your new colleague.

Legal AI is not a job killer

There are two misconceptions about AI in law. The first is that tech entrepreneurs are dangerous; that they’re building new tech that will replace lawyers; that they’re trying to automate jobs; destroy and decimate the industry.

But AI isn’t a job killer. Rather than eliminate lawyers, it will supplement and improve the way lawyers do their jobs. This is how AI has impacted most other parts of our lives. Think about Alexa, for example, Amazon’s in-home AI assistant. It hasn’t cut jobs, nor is it likely to. It has simply provided us with something new that we’ve never even thought of before. It’s addition rather than replacement.

In fact, if you look at the history of technology, you’ll find that technology has rarely eliminated occupations. A study by Harvard economist James Bessen found that over the last 75 years technology has removed only one job through automation: the lift attendant.

Automation has only eliminated one job over the last 75 years (source: Quartz)

The second misconception is, ironically, that technology will, ultimately, change very little in law. I hear many people say that tech will simply provide lawyers with better, more efficient tools to do their jobs. Much like the invention of Excel didn’t change accountancy — it just made accountants’ life easier. Why this is wrong is more difficult to explain, and to unpick it we need to look at what AI actually does.

What our AI future looks like

The true power of AI comes not from doing things more efficiently, but finding ways of doing things that humans may never have even considered before. At its best, although it may be strange to say so, AI has a creative spark; it thinks in ways that humans are unable to do, blending together information, data, and know-how in new and unusual ways.

AlphaGo’s creativity surprised many commentators in its game against Lee Sedol (source: Google/DeepMind)

For example, take AlphaGo, an AI developed by Google to play Go, a sophisticated board game. Beating one of the world’s strongest players in 2016, it stunned the tech community with its now infamous Move 37 in game 2. The move was surprising because although AlphaGo’s AI had been trained on millions and millions of games from human history, this move was unique. AlphaGo had somehow transcended its source materials to figure out something new, fresh, and unique. The student had, in some ways, outstripped in the teacher.

But what does this mean for law?

If leveraged in the right way, AI should be able to do much more, perhaps even surprising us with ‘Move 37’ moments

Of course, AI will have the capacity to automatically collate, sort, and analyse raw data about legislation, giving lawyers practical, useful reminders about implementation deadlines; automatically drawing up ‘step lists’ or ‘micro-plans’ for standard legal procedures in different jurisdictions, and providing tailored newsfeeds about specific relevant new regulations and laws that are coming into force around the world that you may not be aware of.

But, if leveraged in the right way, it should be able to do much more, perhaps even surprising us with ‘Move 37’ moments. For example, it could leverage its collective learnings, know-how, step lists, data, and awareness of regulatory changes to proactively suggest entirely new, innovative ways of doing things. It could proactively suggest new, original corporate structures; present new solutions to old problems by blending different laws; or even help regulators find new, unused loopholes that need to be closed.

This isn’t so surprising because ultimately all these AI systems are doing is collectively blending human know-how, behaviour, and best practice in new ways that might otherwise take us centuries, if not longer, to uncover. It functions like a super lawyer, merging all our collective intelligence.

But there’s a block in the way — fear of collaboration

I’m a strong believer that this AI future will bring us vast benefits with very few negatives. We will quickly become comfortable with depending on AI for new insights and solutions. We will welcome its support in an era when legal and regulatory change is moving faster than ever, and it will become the only way to successfully navigate the potentially choppy waters ahead.

If we want to use technology to our advantage, we have to start now and create a culture of collaboration and exchange between ourselves as an industry, and AI

But there’s a problem. This AI future can only be realised if we collaborate first. Much in the same way that AlphaGo needed to access the historic catalogue of Go games to ‘learn’ how the game operates, and to come up with ingenious and new ways of doing things, any legal AI will need this same access to be able to learn from past experience.

Part of that learning involves ingesting historic and future legal documents along with ongoing commentary, consultations, and other supporting material coming out of the global regulators, parliaments, and international bodies.

Collaboration holds the key to unlocking the power of legal technology and AI

But crucially, a very large amount of the most precious legal information exists not in these documents, but in the heads of our best lawyers. This will include important know-how, distinct perspectives, and practical information about term interpretation, and much else besides.

This information and intelligence does not need to be unlocked by sharing proprietary company-owned information, but by lawyers, compliance managers, regulators, law-makers, and other legal professionals coming together to merely collectively share their insights about changing legislation. It is this collective human intelligence that will provide the vital ingredient to create an AI that can truly ‘think’. If we want to use technology to our advantage, we have to start now and create a culture of collaboration and exchange between ourselves as an industry, and AI.

Technology is changing the law. There is no doubt about that. But the future is brighter than many people expect. In the future, AI in law will be like having an incredibly talented and highly informed personal assistant alongside you throughout the day — not only helping you complete tasks, but pre-empting your needs and providing you with innovative approaches for you to investigate. But before that can happen, we must start the process of collaboration right now.

Mark Holmes is CEO and Founder of Waymark Tech, an AI-powered platform that enables regulatory professionals to find answers to compliance questions, leveraging primary legal sources, such as legislation, and secondary sources, such as community know-how.

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