“While AI and big data make processes such as document review more efficient, it is at its most effective when combined with human expertise. “The system may identify and classify a clause that pertains to transfer rights, but the model will be unable to confidently assess whether the particular clause actually prohibits or permits the transfer of rights and obligations between parties,” says Conetta. “A lawyer would need to read the clause and make that determination, while AI ensures that the lawyer can find the clause quickly and only needs to assess the provision once, across all the documents it may be found in.””

Smart contracts

Such automation will change what lawyers do, particularly as smart contracts are introduced that can carry out transactions as well as codify them. “What starts to become important is the intention of the parties, negotiating on intentions rather than necessarily the words on the page,” says Stafford. “The role of the lawyer will change to become much more of a legal business adviser to their clients, assisting them in what they can and can’t do, what they should and shouldn’t do, rather than just working out that there needs to be a comma at this point in this clause.”

The wording of documents will become more standardised, and automation and AI will focus on helping corporate lawyers in their roles as business analysts, he says.”

Much of the progress on automating process is taking place at larger law firms. Legal startup Amiqus is targeting firms with a small number of offices. It carried out research to find out what they most wanted automating – and, as a result, has launched a service for anti-money-laundering checks, something firms will have to carry out from June this year.

“Law firms are a traditionally risk-averse, conservative profession – they’re not what you would call early adopters,” says Amiqus chief executive Callum Murray. He says the company originally planned to focus on larger firms, but adds: “Smaller law firms are actually at a greater risk, because they lack process automation at all.”

Amiqus plans to develop a range of services for smaller firms as well as having a platform with APIs that can be used by developers for larger firms. “We’re not trying to get rid of solicitors as such, we’re trying to future-proof the way they deliver their service through automating,” he says.

Automated contract analysis

The company is looking at automated contract analysis – already used by larger companies – and an online dispute resolution system that can help settle many cases more cheaply than in court. “The issue with that at the moment is access to the volume dataset,” says Murray, with a lot of data currently behind paywalls. The Ministry of Justice is looking at openly publishing some court information, he says.

“It’s going to take some time to change that, but once that changes, it’s really going to open the floodgates to an open innovation approach.”

This use of automation and AI could allow firms to consider potential clients by collecting data, then comparing it to previous cases. “You could triage cases to say is this a case worth taking on, what’s our chance of success – almost a forecasting tool for litigators,” says Murray. Another option would be a third-party system that collected information from possible litigants, then offered their cases to a number of firms, which would choose whether or not to offer their services. “Effectively, the lawyer becomes far more accessible because you don’t have the huge barrier of the discovery cost,” he adds.

Murray thinks CIOs will have to work more closely with legal officers to allow such automation. “It’s not entirely a technical problem – some of it is process, some of it is change management,” he says. But a more automated legal profession will need to work closely with technologists.

Law catching up

Murray believes law is catching up with other professions, most of which have already adapted to new technology, but that it is more likely that automation and AI will support lawyers rather than entirely replace them in the fashion of financial “robo-adviser” services. “People aren’t quite ready for a computer to say no,” he says. “They are used to that on a mortgage application, but when someone is telling you that the custody of your child is not going to happen, you want a bit more of an explanation.”

Richard Susskind co-developed the world’s first commercially available legal AI system in the 1980s and has recently co-written The Future of the Professions about the impact of technology on professional jobs. “In the 2020s, legal professionals will have a stark choice – compete with machines or build the machines,” he says. “By competing with machines, I have in mind that human lawyers will be doing things that machines cannot.

“By building the machines, I have in mind recognising that there will be AI solutions in the future for many of the problems that bring clients to their lawyers today; and so the way to meet clients’ needs will be to be involved in building these AI systems.”

Susskind says AI is likely to carry out work including due diligence reviews in transaction work, predictions of court decisions and online dispute resolution. “All of this means that legal professionals will not just be legal advisers, they will also be legal knowledge engineers, legal data scientists, legal technologists and legal process analysts.”

Although he reckons medicine and tax are more advanced, Susskind believes the legal profession has invested heavily in AI – and is ahead of teaching and the clergy.