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Robots not about to replace lawyers

SFGate Monday, 20 March 2017
Impressive advances in artificial intelligence technology tailored for legal work have led some lawyers to worry that their profession may be Silicon Valley’s next victim. [...] recent research and even the people working on the software meant to automate legal work say the adoption of AI in law firms will be a slow, task-by-task process. An artificial intelligence technique called natural language processing has proved useful in scanning and predicting what documents will be relevant to a case, for example. Yet other lawyers’ tasks, like advising clients, writing legal briefs, negotiating and appearing in court, seem beyond the reach of computerization, for a while. Dana Remus, a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law, and Levy studied the automation threat to the work of lawyers at large law firms. The research also suggests that basic document review has already been outsourced or automated at large law firms, with only 4 percent of lawyers’ time now spent on that task. Technology will unbundle aspects of legal work during the next decade or two rather than the next year or two, legal experts say. Corporate clients often are no longer willing to pay high hourly rates to law firms for junior lawyers to do routine work. [...] the law firm partner of the future will be the leader of a team, “and more than one of the players will be a machine,” said Michael Mills, a lawyer and chief strategy officer of a legal technology startup called Neota Logic. [...] major law firms, sensing the long-term risk, are undertaking initiatives to understand the emerging technology and adapt and exploit it. Dentons, a global law firm with more than 7,000 lawyers, established an innovation and venture arm, Nextlaw Labs, in 2015. Besides monitoring the latest technology, the unit has invested in seven legal technology startups. Last month, Baker McKenzie set up an innovation committee of senior partners to track emerging legal technology and set strategy. Artificial intelligence has stirred great interest, but law firms today are using it mainly in “search-and-find type tasks” in electronic discovery, due diligence and contract review, Allgrove said. At many of these startups, the progress is encouraging but measured, and each has typically focused on a specific area of law, like bankruptcy or patents, or on a certain legal task, like contract review. When Alexander Hudek, a computer scientist whose resume includes heavyweight research like working on the human genome project, turned to automating the review of legal contracts in 2011, he figured that he would alter standard algorithms and that it would be a four-month job. [...] it took 2½ years to refine the software so it could readily identify concepts such as noncompete contract clauses and change-of-control, said Hudek, chief technology officer of Kira Systems. Ask for the case most similar to the one you have and the Ross program, which taps some of IBM’s Watson artificial intelligence technology, reads through thousands of cases and delivers a ranked list of the most relevant ones, Salazar said. Two obvious factors have led to that downsizing: tightened legal spending and digital technologies that automated some tasks, like document searches, said Yoon, a partner at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati.
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