Lawyers will soon be able to ‘predict’ legal outcomes. But they won’t need a crystal ball to do it. Their window to the future? Artificial intelligence (AI) and statistical analysis.
And not only is AI about to change legal decision making – it’s going to change the way we look at the profession entirely.
AI: bigger and broader than you think
Nikki’s mantra is to never invest in technology unless you have the use case for it. And within her firm, they’ve embraced AI technology – heavily.
“When people talk about AI, they often think of it in a narrow way. But it actually has very broad application.
“Within my firm, we use it for due diligence, automation and bulk contract review… All kinds of legal research tools are driven by AI; tools that enable us to automate parts of the way we write pleadings.
“Not only have the use cases for AI become extensive, we’re also seeing huge advances in technology. And now that natural language processing is so sophisticated, the rate of change is going to accelerate,” she says.
Nikki believes that over the next five years, these advances will have a cumulative transformative effect.
The magical world of big data
Nikki says using AI to extract data from documents and contracts is where the magic truly starts to happen.
“We can use this data to provide an ‘analytics overlay’, which lawyers can use to identify trends in the market.
“Over the last few years or so, data has been much more of a focus. Firms and in-house departments are getting a handle on their data and putting time into structuring it and storing it in one place.
“This is all with a view to leveraging analytics tools to produce actionable insights. We’re talking about the kind of insights that allow the firm or the department to be more proactive in their strategic and business decisions,” she says.
One way this data could be used is through business strategy. For example, using data and insights to understand a firm’s market and target the top echelon of its clients – allowing the firm to generate more revenue.
Perhaps the most exciting outcomes from these advances are for legal clients, with insights from big data improving how practitioners operate.
“This could play out in many ways. For instance, in litigation, a law firm can use its data to see whether a case is likely to settle. Or conversely, a firm can decide if a motion shouldn't really proceed because it’s very unlikely to be successful,” she says.
The risk in prediction
While some see great potential in AI’s ability to ‘predict’ court outcomes, Nikki acknowledges there are some commonly expressed fears about what this may lead to.
Specifically, that using historic data to shape future actions may result in the status quo never being challenged. In essence, that difficult cases may be avoided if they don’t seem easy to win – or profitable.
However, Nikki thinks this concern is largely overstated.
“If you think about it, AI providing insights into likely outcomes isn’t a huge deviation from how the law has always operated. Judges don't make decisions in a vacuum. Their decisions are based on precedent and the common law.
“I don’t think it's likely that firms would be using data to decide to not pursue a case. I think it’s much more likely that the data would shape the firm’s strategy in how they might take on a case.
“For example, say you have a litigation matter. Data could tell you if it’s worth pursuing a motion for summary dismissal depending on the particular jurisdiction the case is taking place in.
“Or say you’re working on an M&A transaction. By looking at data to inform your decisions, you’ll be better placed to offer advice. You’ll know where to negotiate hard, because you know where others have had success,” she says.
Embedding new tech is not as easy as it looks
With an increasing digitally literate legal workforce, it may seem that embedding new technologies should be easier for firms.
However, Nikki laments there is one major barrier: most legal technology platforms are a far cry from the intuitive platforms we’ve come to expect from companies like Apple.
“The tools are improving, but it’s not like picking up an iPhone and instantly knowing what to do. This means learning how to use these technologies and embedding them into your workflow requires a pause to your billable work.
“I think that’s where knowledge management and innovation professionals can lend particular expertise.
“By bringing in change management skills and setting up technology tools to meet lawyers’ specific needs, they can ensure that the automation is occurring within the lawyer workflow,” she says.
Baked in bias: overcoming big tech barriers
Nikki says there is a pressing need to level the playing field when it comes to new-tech environments.
“In my work, I frequently need to find technological solutions with specific functionality either for an area of law, an industry sector, or other niche need.
“Through my research, I quickly realised there are so many vendors releasing technologies in non-English speaking countries that don’t receive the same press as vendors in the UK and the States.
“Travelling for work and speaking to practitioners in non-English speaking countries, I found that lawyers in these regions experience an even more pronounced problem.
“Most technology tools that are promoted for the legal industry are geared towards English speakers. It can be very hard to find a technology if you have clients spanning different languages.
“And of course, country of origin aside, it’s fairly standard that small technology vendors struggle to get their platform seen when up against industry titans,” she says.
So is technological innovation doomed to fall victim to bias? Nikki is working hard to prevent this fate.
“My husband, Chris Ford, and I set out to solve this problem, so we spent 10 months researching legal technology across the globe. From there, we hired developers and built LegaltechHub, which is the most comprehensive directory of legal technology tools in the world.
“Its powerful search and filter functionality allows users to find the exact tools they need. They can drill down to the practice area as well as language.
“And since its launch in October 2020, we've had over 14,000 users to the site from 119 countries,” she says.
Legal entrants: embrace your tech education
“For new graduates entering the legal profession, I strongly recommend that they get an understanding of what the market looks like for lawyers right now.
“No matter what avenue they are thinking of going down – whether it’s in a firm, inhouse, or in access to justice – understanding legal technology is a huge part of the work. It’s important to educate yourself on how technology is impacting the legal sector.
“There are amazing courses that you can do for free. In fact, on LegaltechHub, we're about to launch an event directory of legal courses, which new entrants should certainly check out,” she says.
Industry bodies forging a path forward
“I believe industry bodies and associations are critical. They’re able to help give practitioners exactly the type of tech education that our industry needs right now.
“The Centre for Legal Innovation (CLI) is a leader in this space, and I recently attended its free Innovation and Legaltech Week (co-hosted with the Australasian Legal Practice Management Association), which had an amazing program. And because it was virtual, my team in Hong Kong was also able to attend!
"The CLI is fostering a space for conversation among clients, in-house counsel, legal operations, law firms, staff and lawyers. Not to mention people who work in the tech sector and universities. All verticals can come together to share and collaborate – and really forge a path forward that will drive positive industry change,” says Nikki.