‘Legal Innovations’ Can No Longer Be an Oxymoron

THIS IS ANOTHER POST IN THE FUTURE OF THE PRACTICE SERIES.

We live in an age when lawyers are underemployed and yet many consumers lack access to legal services. Law firms are losing business as companies “in-source” their legal work, while the incomes of some solo practitioners are plummeting. Many lawyers would like to make better use of technology to work more efficiently and have simpler legal processes—but they feel challenged by advances in technology and continue to face difficulties remaining profitable.

The Illinois Supreme Court’s Commission on Professionalism sought to square this set of circles with a presentation titled “Legal Innovations: Why Still an Oxymoron?” by Jayne Reardon, the commission’s executive director, who is also chair of the American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on Professionalism.   Reardon noted that at least 80 percent of consumers lack basic access to legal resources, and yet practicing attorneys cannot find enough work and new law school graduates cannot find work, period. An Altman Weil survey found that 68 percent of law firm attorneys said corporate law departments are “in-sourcing” work and another 24 percent saw this possibility as a potential threat. Only 5 percent said it was not a threat.

The presentation cited statistics from 2013, which one imagines may have improved somewhat with the growing economy since then but probably not that dramatically, that showed solo practitioner income had fallen 30 percent in the previous 25 years, from slightly over $70,000 annually to under $50,000 in inflation-adjusted dollars.

While cause and effect can be sketchy, Reardon cited numbers from the ABA and the Betty Ford Foundation establishing that 1 in 5 attorneys described themselves as problem drinkers, compared with just 11 percent of the “highly educated workforce” overall. Of the 20 percent of attorneys who acknowledged drinking to excess, 27 percent said their problem began in law school and 44 percent said it was in the first 15 years of their practices.

Asked what they would change about how they deliver legal services, one survey of attorneys conducted by the Illinois Commision on Professionalism showed that the top answer was “greater use of technology and electronic resources,” followed by “work more efficiently and have simplified legal processes,” two dots that it’s hard not to connect in your mind.

That same survey asked what attorneys expected would be their greatest challenges for their practices over the next decade. The top answer was “cost of software programs/keeping abreast of technology,” followed by “overcoming decreasing levels of demand and maintaining profitability and financial security.” Again, easily connectable dots.

In finding their needed innovations, attorneys and law firms need to be mindful that they are regulated by state supreme courts, Reardon noted. For those in Illinois, some specific edicts to keep in mind are Rule 5.4 governing “Professional Independence of a Lawyer,” which prohibits sharing of legal fees with non-lawyers and partnerships with non-lawyers that in any way consist of the practice of law; as well as Rule 5.5 governing “Unauthorized Practice,” which says that lawyers can neither practice law nor assist others in doing so in jurisdictions where they are not authorized to do so.

With these cautions in mind, attorneys and law firms will need to be nimbler than they have in the past to keep abreast of technology, meet the needs of a broad cross-section of clients, and stay fully employed—and thus profitable.

Will Robots take over the Practice of Law?

Robots in the Practice of Law?

Nearly half of all jobs in the United States could be performed by robot employees within the next two decades, according to report by PwC, with the effects varying by industry and job category.  Artificial intelligence provides a rapid way to analyze data and identify trends, but AI currently offers little of the creative thinking or originality required in most areas of the law.

The use of AI in the law dates to 1999, when Jay Leib and Dan Roth created “Discovery Cracker,” a tool that helped lawyers manage electronic documents for litigation in an age when they increasingly were sifting through terabytes of data instead of mountains of paper. The pair later in 2013 created NexLP, which uses predictive coding—in which a computer searches documents for conceptual information (not just keyboards) to determine which ones are and are not useful to a case—to substantially reduce the time necessary for e-discovery.

Today, computers are processing information at about 10 times faster than the human brain and it is only a matter of time before computers are programmed to assess all of the other factors that go into a legal analysis.

Artificial intelligence in the legal realm has taken another step forward with the advent of IBM’s “ROSS,” touted as “the world’s first artificially intelligent attorney,” blending the voice technology of Apple’s Siri with the cognitive computer of its IBM sibling, Watson. ROSS can perform the preliminary document research needed for some cases in as little as 30 seconds.

“You ask your questions in plain English, as you would a colleague, and ROSS then reads through the entire body of law and returns a cited answer and topical readings for legislation, case law and secondary sources to get you up-to-speed quickly,” according to the website of Baker and Hostetler, which recently announced that ROSS has been “hired” to work alongside its 50 bankruptcy attorneys.

This has a number of both promising and cautionary implications for law firms and their small business clients:

  • Nearly 80 percent of Americans who currently need a lawyer cannot afford one, despite the massive number of attorneys in the U.S., but using ROSS should be able to lower costs since there will not be humans who bill hourly handling some preliminary research for cases and matters.
  • Attorneys who are currently out of work or under-employed could use AI to create a lower barrier of entry into the market by being able to offer more affordable options to their clients.
  • For now, ROSS is available only for bankruptcy and intellectual property law, and the price may be prohibitive for smaller to midsized firms.
  • The volume of work performed by AI could lead to job loss for some attorneys.
  • ROSS could level the playing field between firms of different sizes because it won’t matter as much whether a firm has one or 30 associates available to research a case.
  • Instead of leafing through dusty textbooks or clicking on hundreds of links looking for precedent or an obscure court ruling, human attorneys will be freed to focus specifically on a client’s needs and creative solutions to them as AI handles the grunt work.
  • ROSS keeps updating court rulings so that as a case is being worked on, attorneys will know about up-to-the-minute developments in the relevant area of law.
  • The technology not only narrows down results to the most relevant answers, but it translates those answers from legalese into something closer to plain English, making them more understandable for clients.

Given that artificial intelligence cannot at the present moment compete with humans in terms of creative thinking or originality, the effectiveness of a technology like ROSS in simply taking over an entire section of a law firm remains doubtful for now.

“We believe that emerging technologies like cognitive computing and other forms of machine learning can help enhance the services we deliver to our clients,” says the Chief Information Officer of the firm employing ROSS in its bankruptcy practice. “We have been using ROSS since the first days of its deployment, and we are proud to partner with a true leader in the industry as we continue to develop additional AI legal assistants.”

Artificial intelligence will continue to move forward in the legal world, although further implications going into the future remain unclear—including the impacts of robots on revelry and merriment at office holiday parties.

How should we plan to network or go to a Cubs game with ROSS?  Will ROSS ask to attend our office parties?