Around 30 years ago, the Macintosh said Hello, as shown in this impressive 5 min video. It introduced us to user-friendly computing, including visual interfaces, multimedia and an early form of mobile computing as it was designed to be luggable. However, even its IBM mainframe joke to “never trust a computer you can’t lift” wasn’t about to convince you that this was really a human. Not so the recent Turing Test where some of the judges were fooled by the computer into believing they were conversing with a 13-year old, rather than a computer. This follows on from Watson winning on Jeopardy, and Kasparov losing to Deep Blue.

An article by Robert Samek in THE DALHOUSIE LAW JOURNAL June 1985 suggested that the role of the computer is merely one element in the communication process in which law is involved. Instead of foisting the computer as an extra on an already outdated system of law, we should try with its help to rejuvenate it. Rather than mechanize manual research, he said the real challenge was to re-examine the very ground on which it stood. For instance, by getting the computer to analyze statistically different elements of the judicial process, new light would be shed on the relationship between doctrine and judicial behaviour.

The problem was not to teach the computer to “think like a lawyer”, i.e. to reduce social to legal phenomena and solutions, but to reverse that process. The crucial question was not “are computers capable of legal reasoning?” but “what can be done effectively with computers and at what cost?”

Artificial intelligence (AI) can greatly enhance natural intelligence as long as it is not misused to replace it, the article concluded.

Fast forward 30 years to the news that Japanese telco Softbank is releasing a very affordable robot that can interact with humans on an emotional level. It has technology which allows the robot to learn how to behave over time, instead of being programmed for specific tasks. Most interestingly, they are also sharing learning via the web. So instead of just machine learning, which has already meant a big difference between AI today and that of three decades ago, expect rapid exponential growth in the capabilities of these machines as they learn from each other.

Car assembly factories attest to the superiority of robots in certain areas, as they “don’t have bad days”. So should we see a Twitter for Robots, it won’t be diluted with excessive social banter, as lifetime-learners exchange today’s insights.

@noricd, who is not a robot, posted on Twitter an article, subtitled: “Talk of the ‘tech sector’ is out of date. Every company is a tech company.” It points out “that every company must now understand software in order to survive”. How do today’s law firms fare in this regard?

Because a lawyer’s raw materials are information based, as is their output, one would think that lawyers are very dependent on IT. Many are, but not as much as they should.

AI aside, there is no shortage of tools that should be a given in any law firm. One law “firm” that claimed to recognize the importance of tech, and whose separation of business/marketing/tech and “the lawyers” became a highly commended model for future US law firms, was Clearspire.

Unfortunately, its demise as a legal services provider has not helped the cause. While its Coral technology will live on, it would be received with caution. What went wrong? Was it the BigLaw/OldLaw propensity to reinvent wheel and the quest for unaffordable perfection? Maybe not, as I recall it was based on an existing Practice Management System (PMS). I would be interested to know which one.

It is all very well licensing an existing PMS as a starting point, but the problem is that there are very few systems that are suitable for lawyers to get their work done, particularly of the high level legal work Clearspire sought. Apart from re-inventing the wheel, in the past there has been a tendency to impose cumbersome systems that added to, rather than streamlined, the work flow of lawyers.

Was it not helped by the BigLaw/OldLaw focus on the claimed development cost of the solution ($5M to $8M), not the results?

All very well saying you are a tech-focused law firm, but there are few genuine legal tech lawyers, and far fewer firms with consistently high skill levels. Plenty “talk the talk” but few think and deal with their legal information challenges in terms of enabling software such as databases, outliners and other tools that protect the lawyers themselves from complexity, and extend their capabilities.

Add AI that learns from sharing “colleagues”, and a newfound determination to address the real challenge Robert Samek advocated to re-examine the very ground on which we stand. With researchers such as Christopher Enright and his method for litigation, and Julian Ehrlich’s Agreement Engineering for contract negotiation both starting to be used, the legal system could go through the same user-driven systematization/productization revolutions which have transformed other sectors.

The difference will be that the potential impact of good lawyers with smart machines and new methods, and managers, could dwarf other sectors due to the size of the latent legal market; the reluctance of the incumbents to truly embrace IT; and the binary nature of legal raw materials and products. I suspect it will be “goodbye” to the legal artisan, and even parts of the legal systems we now know.

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