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The Law and AI

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It seems only yesterday that cutting-edge technology in the legal sector was defined by souped-up search engines (e-discovery) and document management systems (matter management). Genuine innovation and true high technologies seemed out of place in law firms. Even today, many law firms remain paper-centric and look askance at things such as cloud computing and AI. But a changing of the guard is underway as law school graduates from the late 2000s now become partners and general counsels. In short, Millennials are taking over, and with that change comes a sudden and jarring shift in attitude toward technology. Far from rejecting it, younger lawyers are embracing it with open arms. Witness the recent Legal Week event in New York City. Though always a big conference, it typically has been dominated by dated and dowdy technology vendors; this year, it was awash with sellers touting the wonders of AI.

We can all be grateful for this shift, whether we are lawyers or individuals who engage with law firms. It represents a positive change: Work that would have taken days or weeks and cost thousands of dollars can now be done in a fraction of the time, and at a fraction of the cost. At the same time, this shift to embrace advanced technology raises as many questions as it answers. Indeed, the so-called “perfect storm” of a generational change, the move to remote working, and increased client expectations is happening in many other areas of life. It’s simply that the stubbornness and iron grip of traditional law firms and their previous hesitation to adopt new ways of working provide us with a near-perfect case study in change that we can all learn from.

Where problems can arise

AI now dominates legal tech discussions, but what I find most interesting in our research and our engagement in many of these discussions is a lack of understanding and, at times, a delusional belief in the power of AI. This is from both younger and older generations in the legal profession, and it is somewhat surprising given the analytical abilities and intellect required to become an attorney. Though an overgeneralization, I have found that younger attorneys embrace technology almost without question, having grown up with digital devices in their hands. And the older generation is somewhat amazed by the power of technology and therefore unquestioning. This worries me deeply, as AI, incredible though it can be, is not intelligent at all, and, in the wrong hands, can be destructive. We talk a lot in the industry about trustworthy AI, and trust itself is core to the legal profession. It’s here that the problems start to arise.

For example, look at a recent legal scandal in the U.K., that of the British Post Office and the prosecution of 736 sub-postmasters for fraud and theft. The reason such a huge net was cast and pursued to court was that a computer system called HORIZON, built at a cost of $1 billion by Fujitsu, uncovered their fraudulent activity. Except it didn’t, because the software was full of bugs, errors, and defects, and the sub-postmasters were innocent. Some had been imprisoned, all had their worlds upended, and some took their own lives. The convictions were overturned, compensation paid, and government ministers eventually apologized for the tragic fiasco. In this example, decisions made by the computer were accepted by people in positions of trust who could not fathom how a computer system could possible do wrong.

Or, we can look at the use of COMPAS, an AI-based IT application widely used in the U.S. by courts to determine sentencing. Tests have shown it to have an accuracy rate of 65%, while random individual and group accuracy is 67%. In short, while the system is used to determine whether an individual ever sees the light of day again, it is no more accurate than asking somebody off the street. Despite this, many U.S. jurisdictions continue to use COMPAS.

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