Automation in the legal sector

Posted 12 May 2016

Law is a profession that is based on rules, procedures, evidence and precedent. What people do in legal jobs is based on these four pillars. As it turns out, intelligent technologies are pretty well equipped to systemise this criteria and transform it into automated or semi-automated systems. 

However, the legal profession has been relatively conservative when it comes to technology adoption. In many ways, the contemporary profession has a number of similarities with how it was practised over a century ago. 

So how could a greater use of technology impact Australia's population of lawyers, and the profession in general?

As technology continues its unprecedented growth, almost all industries have been touched by it in someway. While the legal profession has resisted, it is not completely free of encroachment. The increasing use of electronic discovery or e-Discovery is an example. 

When e-Discovery was first introduced, it was an extension of the traditional litigation process and conducted by lawyers of various levels of experience. However, in recent years companies have begun using automated services to reduce the time their lawyers spend researching cases.

Take for instance IBM's ROSS Intelligence that is built on the digital giant's supercomputer, Watson. ROSS has a legal research tool that should enable law firms to cut the amount of time their personnel spend on research as well as improving results. 

Jimoh Ovbiagele, co-founder of the ROSS project, argued that the major barriers for people accessing legal representation is the high cost of research. 

"Legal research seemed like the greatest problem. We [knew we] could make a really big change by bringing in state-of-the-art technology, cognitive computing and natural language to the practice of the law," he said.

In fact, a 2013 report from the University of Colorado at Boulder and Brigham Young University found that almost 15 per cent of junior associates spent 50-75 per cent of their time on legal research. With so many hours spent researching, cutting this waste could lead to more affordable legal representation. 

For professionals, a number of questions arise from this. Most importantly, could automation make human lawyers a thing of the past?

Speaking to Lawyers Weekly, founder of Hive Legal Jodie Baker said the sweet spot in the legal industry is where human expertise can be enhanced by technology to solve clients' repetitive problems. Lawyers should see automation as an augmentation of their work rather than a complete replacement.