Lawyers advised to act quickly to get an edge on artificial intelligence

CALGARY — Despite the concerns and potential pitfalls, lawyers need to get an early start on using artificial intelligence before it becomes widespread, the Canadian Bar Association’s legal conference heard on Saturday.

Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin urged lawyers to embrace innovation in a speech at the Canadian Bar Association conference last week.
Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin urged lawyers to embrace innovation in a speech at the Canadian Bar Association conference last week.

“You need to use it right now while you can still get a competitive edge,” Noah Waisberg of contract review and analysis software provider Kira Inc. told participants at a session moderated by lawyer Omar Ha-Redeye on artificial intelligence and the future of law firms on Saturday morning.

The focus of the Calgary conference was on ways to innovate and adapt to the stresses the profession is under as technology and client demands challenge the current business model.

While panellists at the session debated the merits of artificial intelligence and some of the potential downsides for lawyers, a keynote speaker later in the day at the conference said the profession doesn’t have any choice but to accept it. “The reality is it’s not up to you,” lawyer and entrepreneur Leonard Brody told the conference, suggesting it’s clients who will drive the move toward more sophisticated automated processes.

In fact, panellists at the Saturday morning session noted artificial intelligence is already a reality in many areas. “You know how it sets the price?” asked electronic discovery expert Dera Nevin in reference to online booking systems for buying airline tickets. “That’s not a human being setting the price,” she responded.

Applications such as Apple Inc.’s Siri provide what she called “narrow artificial intelligence,” while the more significant advances will offer greater perception as machines learn over time, Nevin noted. She gave the example of what she called the “dog context” in which the machine learns over time to move beyond obvious words related to the word dog in performing a search to consider other terms such as leash and schnauzer. “It’s learning from your cues to improve the results . . .,” she said.

Of course, the legal profession has heard a lot in the last year about ROSS, an application developed by students at the University of Toronto that can provide answers to legal questions. While such artificial intelligence applications are significant, they generally still involve lawyers to interpret the results, panellists noted, suggesting the real change will come from more autonomous systems. But what about the role of the lawyer when that happens, especially in light of reports that IBM’s Watson has in some cases done a better job of diagnosing cancer than the medical experts? Several of the panellists had an answer for that. As participants at the session noted, they already have plenty of work to keep them busy. “That’s why you don’t have to be afraid of this because you already have more work than you can handle,” said Nevin, suggesting artificial intelligence would allow lawyers to focus on more imaginative tasks. “What if there’s a new law to be discovered?” she asked, adding there’s still a role for lawyers.

“Right now, we have too much law in some categories and not a lot of law in other categories,” she said.

Waisberg offered a similar view, suggesting artificial intelligence would allow lawyers and law firms to serve more people in different ways and, as such, would help improve access to justice.

Prof. Ian Kerr, who holds the Canada research chair in ethics, law, and technology at the University of Ottawa, offered a more nuanced view. “The question becomes a question of delegation and which things it’s appropriate for machines to do and which things it’s not appropriate for machines to do,” he said, suggesting society might not want an algorithm to decide a criminal case even if that were possible.

Besides the ethical concerns, there are practical ones as well, he noted, citing the need for lawyers and law students to still perform tasks that remain meaningful despite the fact that machines can do them. And a particular risk, he added, is overdependence on machines to do things.

Kerr is also skeptical about the touted improvements to access to justice as services trickle down to those currently left out. “I think it’s going to require more than the advent of some great technology,” he said.

Waisberg, however, downplayed the concern about lawyers losing skills with the advent of artificial intelligence. “I think you will get good at other stuff and that’s a pretty exciting thing,” he said.

And as panellists discussed the advent of software that will be able to make increasingly accurate assessments about the likely success of cases by mining past rulings and detecting judges’ biases, Waisberg said lawyers would do themselves a favour by understanding and adopting these new technologies sooner rather than later since everyone will be using them in the coming years. Nevin, in particular, advised lawyers to start using XRef, a writing tool that suggests improvements to legal documents by analyzing precedent.

The discussion about artificial intelligence came as a host of speakers at the conference in Calgary emphasized the need for lawyers to quickly adapt to the competitive pressures they’re under. “We must not close our mind to the changes that are being increasingly forced on us,” Supreme Court of Canada Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin told lawyers during a wide-ranging speech on Friday morning that touched on the inevitability of liberalization of legal practice and noted that the “old monopolies” are fading fast.

Another conference session on Saturday that offered a primer on legal innovation noted that doing things differently doesn’t always have to mean radical change. Noting “innovation is so much more than alternative business structures,” Friedrich Blase of legal outsourcing provider Pangea3 said it’s also about issues such as how lawyers and law firms charge their clients. “You’ve got to break it down to very mundane tasks very quickly; otherwise, it doesn’t get done,” he said, noting law firms often think innovation has to involve major changes.

Brody, in a speech peppered with examples about how much society has changed just since 2008, offered his own solution to those struggling with how to adapt. He touted the 10-per-cent rule. Under it, lawyers and law firms would invest 10 per cent of, for example, their time or money into whatever threatens their business.
The opportunity, McLachlin noted in her speech, is for “nimble, tech-savvy lawyers” in light of the digital revolution.

“We’re part of it, and there’s no escape,” she said.

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