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Ask Dr Paola: how AI is changing the legal industry

It is increasingly predicted that Artificial Intelligence (AI) will significantly impact the legal industry in the years to come, and profoundly change the way legal services are delivered. However, as the adoption of AI across the industry gradually takes off, what impact is it having already?

Dr Paola Cecchi-Dimeglio, a behavioural scientist and senior research fellow for Harvard Law School’s Center on the Legal Profession and the Harvard Kennedy School, claims that, although AI has the ability to transform modern businesses, including those in the legal sector, ‘much of what constitutes AI remains somewhat misunderstood’ by the majority of those people or business entities that would benefit most by its use. This can be subsequently problematic, and may limit the benefits that AI has to offer.

Understanding AI

Dr Paola explains that the simplest way to think of AI is that it is a process which involves a machine that can perform tasks that are characteristic of human intelligence – and under this definition, there are two categories:

  • General AI: 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. Narrow AI can do some facets extremely well, but is lacking in other areas. It is more advanced and sophisticated thinking, which allows a machine to do extremely well on certain types of tasks, especially those that are very time-consuming. For example, recognising an image.

At the core of AI there is ‘machine learning’. This element should be seen as a dock on which information sits, and then the user tunes the algorithm to find the pattern in it, Dr Paola said. The principle of machine learning is that the machine has access to the data itself, and the machine will in turn 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 that point, there is then ‘deep learning’, which is one of many approaches to machine learning. This, for example, relates to ‘decision-tree learning processes, clustering, and inductive logic programming’ – which is identified as an ‘artificial neural network,’ where the algorithms try to mimic the biological structure of the brain.

AI in the legal industry

Dr Paola explains that the potential of AI could lead to rapid changes in the legal profession, but adds that instead of AI replacing the work that humans do it will in fact compliment their decision making.

Dr Paola added: “In the legal profession, for example, this could lead to a dramatic reallocation of tasks and an even more specialised 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.”

Therefore, AI can free up lawyers to focus on the more analytical and strategic thinking aspect of tasks − because, Dr Paola added, despite AI’s ability to locate, distill and organise any quantity of data for the needed information, the interpretation of the information still needs to be done by a human being.

“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,” Dr Paola said. “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.”

To read the full interview with Dr Paola Cecchi-Dimeglio, go to the Thomson Reuters’ Legal Executive Institute.

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