Welcome to the Machine

Is the future of legal advice in jeopardy — or do lawyers have a new friend in artificial intelligence?

WE LIVE IN interesting times, where the disruptive impact of technology and automation is omnipresent (see "Machine Readable," p. 48). Whether in the form of the self-driving electric cars of the future, package delivery by drones, the Airbnb-ization of the accommodation market or the blockchain phenomenon, the impact of the fourth industrial revolution is a reality few can ignore.

It has been widely forecast that over the next 10 years technology will disrupt business more dramatically than it has over the past 50 years. The business of law is not immune to this chaotic transformation. The good news is that the message has been heard loud and clear; in the past 12 months alone, mindshare in legal circles has focused heavily on legal tech as the practice of law grapples with multiple shifts in the way legal services are provided.

In January 2017 American Lawyer magazine hosted its inaugural Legal Week in New York with a "state of the profession" theme and an agenda heavily bent on the impact of AI and legal tech on the provision of legal services.

Later that month the Georgetown Law Center for the Study of the Legal Profession, together with Thomson Reuters, published the report Alternative Legal Service Providers: Understanding the Growth and Benefits of These New Legal Providers. The report’s main contention is that alternative legal service providers are effecting a dramatic disintermediation and commoditization of certain legal services in the marketplace, where outside law firms and lawyers are no longer the sole or preferred fulfillment conduit. Finally, at the 2017 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, vendors figured heavily, offering new and innovative solutions across many industries and professions.

While the term legal tech encompasses a wide range of technologies and innovations, AI and machine learning may have the most profound impact on the legal profession. AI gives machines the power to copy human behaviour, and to think and reason like humans. One of the best-known embodiments of AI circling law is IBM’s Watson: a highly evolved, adaptable, cloud-based AI system that is being rented out to various professions (known as "smart as a service", or "SAAS.").

ROSS Intelligence Inc., a Legal Tech start-up created by University of Toronto students, was funded in 2016 by NextLaw Labs, a Silicon Valley-based Legal Tech incubator launched by Dentons Canada LLP, and has since developed a virtual lawyer product dubbed "Ross." This AI lawyer interface can perform complex legal research across a global database, reflecting subtleties and nuances from human instruction and producing fast, accurate research. Several blue-chip law firms, including BakerHostetler, have signed up to use the service.

Machines will not usurp the role of lawyers. To the contrary, these technologies will sift through a global, cloud-based database of law in an efficient and intelligent way, a way that will be constantly shaped and refined through user feedback to provide rich, real-time data from which lawyers, not machines, will make high-value, high-quality decisions. And rules of professional conduct will continue to ensure a lawyer remains ultimately responsible for the dispensation of legal advice.

The legal profession stands to greatly benefit and leverage all the advantages and efficiencies brought on by the legal tech revolution. This should lead to better (and cheaper) legal services. The challenge will be to integrate technology in a way that maintains the highest standards of advice, and to ensure that future generations of lawyers embrace technology for what it offers: the chance to raise their game and provide ever more thoughtful, well-considered advice in an increasingly complex and uncertain world.

The future is in good hands.

Loreto Grimaldi is the former EVP and General Counsel of Progressive Waste Solutions Ltd., and currently Principal and lawyer at Grimlaw Professional Corp., and Adjunct Professor of Law at Osgoode Hall Law School.