Getting Ready for the Next Wave of Legal AI

By David Curle, Director of the Technology and Innovation Platform, Thomson Reuters

It seems that every time you turn around these days, someone is discussing artificial intelligence (AI) and how it will revolutionize the legal landscape.

While AI technologies have the power to transform many aspects of legal work, it’s important to maintain perspective about what AI can — and can’t — do.

AI Is Not One Thing

Let’s start by keeping in mind that AI is not a single technology. Really, it’s a number of different technologies applied in different functions through various applications. Broadly speaking, it’s software and computer systems that perform tasks that previously required human intelligence.

From there, artificial intelligence can cover a lot of more specific technologies, such as Natural Language Processing (NLP) for example. NLP is behind many AI applications in the legal industry whose work product is, as we know, text-heavy by nature. NLP is used to translate plain-English search terms into legal searches on research platforms, and also to analyze language in documents for eDiscovery or due diligence reviews.

Machine learning, voice recognition, question answering, and text extraction and classification are just a few of the other functions and capabilities that AI covers.

You’ve Already Been Using AI

AI has actually been powering many of the technologies that you’ve already been using and are familiar with.

Legal research platforms have been incorporating AI for decades to power capabilities like NLP to make it faster and easier for users to create search queries instead of using complicated techniques such as Boolean search. AI has also been improving search results, delivering more concrete answer sets instead of merely retrieving a list of documents that might answer the question. And it supports those answers with links to authoritative court decisions and sources, bolstering confidence in the results.

Similarly, most eDiscovery platforms incorporate varying degrees of AI to help analyze and sort through massive amounts of unstructured or semi-structured data in the form of emails, written memoranda and documents, spreadsheets, calendars, and so on.

The volume and variety of that data make complete human review almost impossible in large litigation cases — not to mention grueling and unappealing. Luckily, machine learning can help “teach” document review software how to predict whether a given document is likely to be responsive to a given request. And, it often can do so more accurately and cheaply compared to human review.

Machine learning is also proving very useful in large-scale review of document sets in contract analysis, particularly for due diligence reviews in large mergers and acquisitions. Contracts are often lengthy documents that share certain common clauses and terms that help computers identify specific clauses and potential outliers.

Where AI is Going Next

A couple of common threads through the above examples is that AI can process and analyze information at a speed and scale far beyond any human capabilities. But at the same time, human intelligence remains an essential component, and not just in providing the “learning” that makes up “machine learning” by teaching the algorithms how to analyze the information. But people also still form the key point where the answers that AI provides are applied to the specific task or matter.

Rather than replacing lawyers, AI, among other things, provides better, faster, and more accurate answers that can assist lawyers in applying their experience and judgement to their legal work.

AI is another technology tool that helps lawyers do their work more efficiently, develop more effective legal strategies, provide better outcomes for their clients, and much more.

It’s All About the Data

Even with the tremendous advances that AI represents, in the end, it’s fundamentally about data — something lawyers have been used to and comfortable dealing with for decades. Think about the dates, parties, legal issues, citations, motions, dispositions, arguments and more that are involved; then layer on top of that the amount of time and work spent managing these factors, and then strategizing against a host of variables and potential outcomes.

This is where AI can provide tremendous assistance — making these processes more analytical, data-driven and predictive.

AI applications are already a key tool in the IT arsenal that lawyers have at their disposal today. Given the dizzying pace of technology advancement, those capabilities will continue to grow at an exponential rate, enabling even greater efficiencies.

In the end, it doesn’t matter whether the technology you’re using is AI or not, as long as it solves your problem at hand. And even with the achievements in AI to date, the potential remains as exciting as ever.