The Continuing March of AI Through Law

Last month I had the pleasure of presenting a paper at the International Conference on Artificial Intelligence and Law. It was fifteenth such conference held every two years.   Artificial Intelligence and Law thus is a discipline that is already thirty years old. Because of the exponential increase in computation (doubling in power about every 18 months), the theoretical advances made over the years at such conferences are now yielding practical results.

In this initial post, let me mention the most interesting practical application of AI to law at the conference– A Legal Citation Recommendation Engine. This program embeds a research mechanism within Microsoft Word. As a lawyer types his or her brief or memo, the program suggests case law and other material relevant to its arguments. Thus, the program acts as real-time, imbedded virtual legal research assistant.

The inventors of the product hope to distribute a prototype by next year. The program seems relatively rudimentary now. But at their beginning speech-to-text programs were also rudimentary and made many errors in transcription even when I used my PC and an excellent microphone. Now I use such programs to dictate all e-mails into my smart phone even with ambient noise. And the legal citation engine will improve by learning from the way lawyers use its recommendations.

Such programs will continue to disrupt the legal market in the next decades.  They will help extend the reach of the talented in law and put the job of the journeyman lawyer at risk. The lawyer capable of writing creative memos and briefs, particularly in high stake matters, will still be offering valuable services. But more routine work,  like finding authorities and precedents, will be become more and more automated. Of course, it is true that there can be creative use of precedents, but even here we should expect machines to get better.  They will have the advantage of surveying more authority that offers odd angles on a case than humans can easily digest.

As Benjamin Barton describes in Glass Half-Full, his wonderful new book about the legal profession, small law has been suffering for over a decade, in part because routine, low-stakes work, like setting up a corporation or generating a simple will,  has become a commodity that can be automated. Currently, even in big law, the best firms are becoming far more profitable than others for similar reasons. Developments like the program unveiled at this year’s conference will only accelerate that trend. As I tell my students, however, it is easy to have great career in this brave new world: be a superstar!