Legal technology expert Greg Wildisen looks at AI’s impact on the legal sector

The recent media frenzy about artificial intelligence (AI) has been unavoidable. This vision has perhaps come a step closer with the arrival of IBM Watsoni and Richard Susskind’s latest book, The Future of the Professionsii, which predicts an internet society with greater virtual interaction with professional services such as doctors, teachers, accountants, architects and lawyers.

In reality, is AI many years away from making any real impact in the legal sector? And should law firms see this technical advancement as an opportunity or threat?


This October Thomson Reuters announced a collaboration to use Watson across its information businesses. This announcement is encouraging to read, but still little in the way of practical application today.

The most significant form of AI for the legal industry today is Smart Apps, sometimes referred to as ‘Expert Systems’. With the advent of significantly more powerful computer processing power and better algorithms, they are now capable of addressing multiple legal challenges. Smart Apps are best described as technologies that connect complex content and expert analysis of that content to provide precise, immediate answers. They focus on deterministic outcomes, i.e. they answer specific questions. For example, can I or can’t make this payment under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA)? Or what is my level of risk in making this monetary transaction?

Where will AI fit into the legal world today?

AI makes Smart Apps particularly useful in highly regulated markets. Every industry is facing growing regulation exposing risk to businesses of all sizes. Many global businesses find themselves navigating a spider web of complex international rules and restrictions. Breach or failure can have significantly negative consequences, both financial and reputational. Smart Apps are able to rapidly answer complex regulatory questions immediately, and often with greater accurately, without a human one-to-one bottleneck, therefore freeing up lawyer time to deal with more complex bespoke legal tasks.

An example of this type of Smart App is Foley & Lardner’s FCPA Appv. This mobile app allows their clients’ sales teams to self-serve payment questions anywhere, anytime round the globe. It has provided Foley access to new clients deeper into the Fortune 500, extending their client base beyond what they were handling on a one-to-one human answer basisvi.

Another example for the use of AI in law today is ComplianceHRvii, a self-service Smart App platform for HR questions powered by the expertise of Littler Mendelsonviii, the USA’s largest HR law firm. In this platform there are a series of Smart Apps including an Independent Contractor App that assesses the users’ employment status in 51 jurisdictions by assessing some 1,400 cases and 80 weighting factors.

Breaking down the AI barriers

Graduates have naturally become tech savvy as the use of mobile technology is an intuitive part of their upbringing. Law schools have identified technology as a growing area of legal education need. Professor Tanina Rostainix introduced a Legal Innovation Coursex at Georgetown University in 2012 where students learn how to build Smart Apps. Every semester groups of three or four students are assigned to a charity organisation with a specific legal advice challenge.

The students work with the charity to build a Smart App to solve a legal problem and then are required to present their Smart App in an ‘IronTech Lawyerxi competition at the end of the semester. The course has been so successful it has extended to other US universities and also started recently at Melbourne University (see their recent ‘Bake Off’xii). Discussions are underway with UK universities.

Why the interest? Neota Logic platform provides a no-code AI platform which means that non-technical people can rapidly translate an idea into a fully functional Smart App. The software does this by using a series of complex rules, reasoning and business processes to deliver an easy to understand set of recommendations to the end user in seconds.

Are you ready to innovate?

The tech revolution is here to stay. It remains only for law firms to decide if they are choosing to keep their heads in the sand, or embrace the opportunity available to them. There is a fear factor surrounding lawyers losing jobs through AI promoted by current media, but at this early stage it is much more important to focus on the opportunity than the fear. So many legal questions go ‘un-lawyered’ today that there is enormous scope to better align legal resources through technology rather than fear losing jobs.

Access to justice has become a problem of the middle class according to lawyer and author Mitchell Kowalskixiii, which provides the legal profession the opportunity to fill that void way before ever having to consider if they are doing themselves out of a job. Change is inevitable and the alignment of tech savvy graduates, innovation driven clients and enabling Smart App technology will inevitably drive change into the legal profession at a rate never seen before.

The opportunity to be ahead of the curve is available to UK law firms right now. If your firm’s culture is aligned to innovation, now is the time to strike. The early majority will be hot on your heels.

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