As intelligent technology has started to make its way into systems being used by lawyers, legal professionals are anxiously waiting to see how artificial intelligence will affect their line of work and are determined not to be left behind, lawyers say.
A growing number of companies and legal tech startups have incorporated intelligent technology or machine learning into their offerings, which provide faster and more efficient ways to do repetitive or time-consuming tasks, such as research, e-discovery and document review.
As a profession that has often been cast as conservative and reticent to change, some members of the Canadian legal industry now find themselves holding their breath to see how this kind of technology will transform their practices.
“Lawyers know what’s going on in the world. They know technology is breathing down their necks,” says Mark Tamminga, a partner and leader of innovation initiatives at Gowling WLG. “And they’re really anxious to make sure they’re using the appropriate tools on behalf of their clients.”
Tamminga says a lot of the work that lawyers do that is fairly routine could end up being replaced by intelligent technology.
Lee Akazaki, of Gilbertson Davis LLP, says he believes intelligent technology will end up cutting out a lot of that work.
“A lot of lawyers who currently do nothing but legal research and who don’t apply very much in the way of comprehensive thinking to their research will be replaced because the machine will be able to do that and will be able to provide ranked suggestions of outcomes,” he says.
Akazaki says that any lawyers who try to reject the tools that are becoming available will likely have to adapt or fall behind.
“You can’t charge a client for 10 hours for research that could have been done in two hours with the aid of electronic research,” he says. “If you’re going to have to pare down your fee account as a result of not having embraced technology, then you will not be able to compete with your colleagues who do.”
Canadian startups using intelligent technology are adamant that their systems will simply complement the work lawyers do and that their products will not replace them.
“When technology is assisting, it is not replacing,” says Andrew Arruda, a co-founder and CEO of ROSS Intelligence Inc., a California-based company founded by Canadians that has programmed IBM’s Watson computer to do legal research.
“It is not disruptive or displacing. It really is just ensuring that people are working better and that their decision-making is more informed and more pointed.”
There seems to be little love for the concept of disruption among the Canadian legal tech community, which prefers to see its products as enablers rather than job killers.
Cian O’Sullivan, the founder of Beagle, says his service and others like it are not disruptive but transformative.
“If you’re disruptive, you are disturbing the elements and we’re not disturbing it,” he says. “What we’re doing is we’re making what is there a lot better.
And we’re giving the power back to the lawyers to be able to engage with clients that they wouldn’t normally engage with.”
Beagle, which is based in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont., uses machine learning to analyze contracts. O’Sullivan says such systems provide something that is inevitable.
“We just happen to be one of the first out of the gates,” he says.
“It’s inevitable. It’s happening.”
Benjamin Alarie, the founder of Blue J Legal — a Canadian startup that is programming IBM’s Watson to answer tax law questions — says that once his service goes live it will only serve to enhance what lawyers are doing.
“This will be to lawyers what chess-playing computers and chess programs were for chess players. It means people can become better more quickly,” he says.
“If you train using a chess computer, you can actually become much better. The strongest players now are actually much stronger than they have ever been in the past because they’ve been able to get better playing against chess computers.”
The key challenge for law firms at the moment is to figure out which of the companies and systems that are popping up can best benefit their lawyers and practices, says Mara Nickerson, chief knowledge officer at Osler Hoskin & Harcourt LLP.
“The challenge for lawyers is figuring out which are the ones that fit most efficiently with their practice because there are a lot of tools out there,” she says.
“A lot of the products are quite specific for specific tasks and have specific areas of practice and so they don’t all fit any particular firm or any particular practice area,” she adds.
Tamminga says trying to figure out which startups to partner with and which technologies are worth investing in are tasks firms need to stay on top of.
“These are questions law firms haven’t really faced before,” he says.
“How do I pick where to put my innovation resources? You need to have some sort of overall strategy, and a lot of that has to do with making sure we don’t get blindsided by a revolutionary piece of machine intelligence and that’s why it’s really important to have your whiskers out.”