Ask Dr. Paola: How Will Artificial Intelligence Really Change the Legal Industry?

Topics: Artificial Intelligence, Law Firms, Legal Innovation, Midsize Law Firms Blog Posts, Small Law Firms, Talent Development


Each month, Dr. Paola Cecchi-Dimeglio, a behavioral scientist and senior research fellow for Harvard Law School’s Center on the Legal Profession and the Harvard Kennedy School, will be answering questions about how law firms and legal service firms can navigate a dramatically changing legal environment by using data analytics and behavioral science to create incentives for their lawyers and others to change their behavior. (You can follow Paola on Twitter at @HLSPaola.)

On to this month’s question…

Ask Dr. Paola: We hear a lot about Artificial Intelligence and how it will change business, including the legal industry, but what do we need to understand about AI and how that transformation is happening now?

Artificial Intelligence has the ability to transform much of the way in which modern businesses work, including in the legal industry. However, much of what constitutes AI remains somewhat misunderstood by the majority of those people or business entities that would benefit most by its use. Again, that includes the legal industry.

Some of this misunderstanding comes from limited experience with AI and what it can do; and that can be a problem, because if AI isn’t understood well its benefits will be limited, and worse yet, the help it does provide may be corrupted by our currently existing biases.

The best and simplest way to think of AI is that it is the process which involves a machine that can perform tasks that are characteristic of human intelligence. Under that definition, we have two other categories — General AI and Narrow AI.

General AI is what we call it when a machine or algorithm has the ability to take on characteristics of human intelligence. For example, it could search and sort through data like a human could, only much more quickly and accurately.

Narrow AI is another side of human intelligence but only covers some facets of it. In fact, narrow AI can do that facet extremely well, but is lacking in others.  It is more advanced and sophisticated thinking, that allows a machine to do extremely well on certain types of tasks, especially those that are very time-consuming. For example, recognizing an image.

Dr. Paola Cecchi-Dimeglio

At the core of AI, we have what we call “machine learning”, which is, if you put it in very simple terms, a simple way of achieving AI. In fact, machine learning should be seen as a dock on which you sit information, and then you tune the algorithm to find the pattern in it. The idea of machine learning is that the user gives the machine access to the data itself, so that the machine will learn by itself. The iterative aspect of machine learning is important because as models are exposed to new data, they are able to independently adapt. They learn from previous computations to produce reliable, repeatable decisions and results.

From there, we get into what we call “deep learning”, which is one of many approaches to machine learning. For instance, decision-tree learning processes, clustering, and the inductive logic programming. And this is where we find what we call an artificial neural network where the algorithms try to mimic the biological structure of the brain.

In this way, we could see how AI, machine learning and deep learning could change the ways we behave in every way, including professionally, but also personally. And I think we don’t fully appreciate how much that is already impacting us and how it is likely to impact our actions and decisions in the future.

In the legal profession, for example, this could lead to a dramatic reallocation of tasks and an even more specialized way of answering clients and offering strategic solutions to their needs. Indeed, I think this is where we often hear that misconception that AI, machine learning and deep learning will replace human beings — especially lawyers.

Instead, the way to look at it, I think, is that AI, machine learning and deep learning will be a way of complimenting people’s decision-making, allowing us to make the most interesting work our priority. We will be able to answer very complicated questions — key strategic questions — and having more fun doing it. Because the tedious work, which until very recently was still done by having 100 lawyers gather in a back room to do document review, is now (at least, in much of the legal industry) being done by programs in order to provide lawyers with the best outcome or decision.

However, that is far away from having a machine be able to assess everything, and in fact, it actually increases the value of the person involved. It allows, basically, the lawyers to focus not on the meaningless part of the task, but on the analysis and strategic thinking part of the tasks. And I think that what will also help the lawyer, and the overall legal profession, to become even more trusted advisors to their clients.

That’s the most important part to remember about AI: It may be able to locate, distill and organize any quantity of data for the needed information, but the interpretation of the information still needs to be done by a human being.

So, the value of what the lawyer provides to his client will even be increased because AI will supply the speed, accuracy and thoroughness, giving the lawyer the ability to concentrate solely on the analysis.

Then to answer your question, the major transformation the legal industry will see will be in the distribution of staff, and that will have a big payoff, especially for very large law firms. Overall, AI will reduce the energy and resources put to legal processes, and in turn, reduce the legal cost; but it will increase the depth, quality and technical value of the advice that lawyers can provide to their clients. And we are already seeing this happen.