Technology: Disrupting the Legal Profession

Disruptive technology.  It may sound more from the realm of cyber crime and hackers, but it is precisely this kind of technology which is shaping our culture and transforming the world around us.  

Disruptive technology refers to innovations that go beyond simply improving on the way things are done or on what is already available – instead they completely change the game.  Think Spotify revolutionising how we listen to music, AirBnB’s effect on the hotel and accommodation sector, and Uber becoming our go-to method of getting from “A” to “B”.  

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Each of these propositions has displaced an established way of thinking and doing things, shaken up traditional industries and in some cases created new industries in themselves.  They have truly been disruptive. 

Yet, despite us living through a time of unprecedented technological innovation, for many the customer experience at law firms has hardly changed at all.  In their book ‘The Future of the Professions’ technologists, Richard and Daniel Susskind, even went so far as to say that the legal sector has “not changed much since the time of Charles Dickens”!  While that may be a slight exaggeration (we have, after all, seen the advent of computers, laptops and the internet), in many cases if you require legal advice, you will find yourself going to meet a lawyer in a suit who will review your issue, carry out research and bill you at an hourly rate as has been the case for decades. 

However, the last few years have seen more forward thinking law firms begin to utilise technology to improve their ways of working, generating efficiencies and delivering service excellence for both themselves and their clients.  Whilst in many cases this involves adopting technology used in other industries, such as document management systems and cloud-based solutions, some are also adopting fresh technological solutions designed to tackle specific issues faced by lawyers in their day to day work of advising clients.  This has led to a period of real innovation and development in the legal technology sector with hundreds of start up companies popping up around Europe and the US all with the aim of disrupting the profession and changing the way we, as lawyers, work. 

For example, one of the key technologies being developed and trialled by firms is e-discovery and applied AI transactional diligence systems which automate the process of collecting and reviewing unstructured information.  They allow potentially relevant data to be identified and extracted far faster and more accurately than it could ordinarily by a lawyer manually sifting through the information.  By reducing the amount of time spent reviewing documents, lawyers are freed up to focus on processing the key relevant information identified by systems and applying the legal expertise and experience which really benefits their clients.

The use of artificial intelligence systems in the legal industry will become more mature in future.  The availability of parallel computing and improved algorithms will increasingly make it possible for AI machines to “think” like humans and address multiple legal challenges.  In narrow AI verticals, this has already led to the development of so-called “Smart Apps” which can analyse complex content and provide precise immediate answers to specific questions or perform a straightforward legal task.

More sophisticated examples include the likes of ROSS, a Canadian start-up selling into the US market, whose technology is powered by IBM’s Watson (which famously won the US game show Jeopardy! back in 2011).  ROSS has been designed to be an AI legal researcher which responds to natural language queries.  Lawyers can ask ROSS questions, to which it is able to provide detailed answers (including legal citations and links to articles for further reading) by searching through huge quantities of legal documents, cases and legislation.  What’s more ROSS has the ability to learn, refining its responses based on experience and the up/down votes it receives based on its answers to questions.  From this, ROSS can fine tune its research methods and best serve users in the future.

Applied AI is just one example of how the legal industry as we know it is changing.  Others include document automation, sophisticated workflow and case management systems and client-facing digital propositions and content.

At Burness Paull we are already on this journey, working with our lawyers, IT and business teams and hiring our first dedicated Legal Technologist to deploy technologies to help us continuously improve the way we work and deliver service excellence.  After all, every organisation is now a tech organisation whether it sells, creates or is enabled by technology, and law firms are no different.

Written by Callum Sinclair, Head of Technology and Commercial at Burness Paull

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"Technology: Disrupting the Legal Profession" First published on Company Connecting August 2016

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