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March 28, 2016 Asked and Answered

Why embracing artificial intelligence is in your law firm’s best interests (podcast with transcript)

By Victor Li

Artificial intelligence has long been a tool for lawyers to perform their tasks more efficiently. However, the technology has advanced to the point where computers can now perform many of the tasks that were once the exclusive domain of humans. In this month’s Asked and Answered, the ABA Journal’s Victor Li talks to freelance writer Julie Sobowale about how artificial intelligence is revolutionizing the practice of law.

Listen to the Podcast

Podcast Transcript

Victor Li: Artificial intelligence is changing the way lawyers practice law. It used to be that AI would help lawyers perform long tedious tasks more efficiently and quickly, like document review or legal research. However, in the last few years AI has advanced to the point where computers and software can now predict the outcomes of court cases, and even provide answers for people who might not be able to afford to hire a lawyer. With advanced technology of course, comes the age-old controversy about whether or not artificial intelligence is as reliable as human intelligence.

I’m Victor Li filling in for Stephanie Francis Ward. On today’s episode of the ABA Journal’s Asked and Answered podcast, I’ll be talking to Julie Sobowale, a freelance journalist and lawyer based in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Welcome to the show, Julie.

Julie Sobowale: Thanks for having me.

Victor Li: So you’ve written one of the main features for the April edition of the ABA Journal titled Robots Are Us. Could you talk a little bit about it, but specifically about how you came up with the story idea?

Julie Sobowale: Yeah, definitely. So I’ve been covering legal technology for, I would say, about six years. And one of the things that really intrigued me was artificial intelligence. And my interest kind of peaked last year when I heard about ROSS Intelligence, which is one of the companies talked about in the article, coming in second place for a competition with IBM Watson. And they were kind of the first company in Canada that was working with this type of technology, which was basically using robots to do the work of lawyers.

And so I kind of looked into that a little bit, and then I heard about Dentons, which has now spun off a subsidiary that is totally independent and works on this type of legal technology, so artificial intelligence, predictive coding, all those kinds of things. And so I really wanted to kind of dive into where are we going in the legal profession in terms of artificial intelligence, and really, what does the future look like?

Victor Li: I have a little bit of familiarity with Dentons Lab, I think it’s called NextLaw Labs, because I originally featured them in my feature, which is also supposed to run in April, that deals with law firms developing their own technology. So once I found out that you were talking to them, I took them out of the piece, so you don’t have to worry about me stealing your—stealing your copy. So I wanted to ask you about ROSS Intelligence because it sounded very promising to me when I was looking into it. Could you talk a little bit about what it is; what it does; and how it could potentially affect the legal industry?

Julie Sobowale: Yeah, definitely. So there’s these two young lawyers in Toronto. And one of the cofounders [Jimoh Ovbiagele] really had an idea to do legal research in a more efficient and cheaper way after going through an experience in which his parents were going through a divorce and they had hefty legal fees, which is a very common story not only in Canada, but in the U.S. And so he along with Andrew [Arruda], who is also featured in the piece, they got together and they decided to create ROSS Intelligence, which was using IBM Watson to do legal research.

So what does that mean? Right now, how lawyers do their research is they use Westlaw or a similar program like that, and maybe you type in a keyword, right? So maybe I’m in personal injury law and I want to look up case law on the maximum payouts for a certain type of head injury. Well, what ROSS Intelligence would do is you don’t have to put it in that kind of Boolean searches. You can use plain language. You would type it in and it would give you all the relevant legislation, case law, in a really easy-to-use format.

But what makes ROSS Intelligence really special is not only when you do that initial search it will bring you all those cases and legislation about those specific personal injury cases, but it will also update you on research as it becomes available. So maybe there’s a new case that comes out two weeks later, ROSS Intelligence will let you know and say, “Hey, I found something else that will help you.” Or it will even say, “Hey, you know, remember that original search that you did? I actually found something better later on. Here’s the research that I’d like to show you.”

So in other words, it’s working as a research lawyer, but a computer, and it’s doing it faster and more efficiently. And this is kind of the way these two are thinking about how the legal profession needs to evolve, in this case in legal research.

Victor Li: Let me ask you, obviously with a piece of technology that powerful it can help lawyers do their job more efficiently, but it could also potentially help clients or regular people receive answers that may be otherwise have to pay a lot of money to hire a lawyer, or maybe they wouldn’t even be able to hire a lawyer. Do you see products like this as being able to help bridge the sort of access-to-justice gap that we have, not just in this country, but also in Canada?

Julie Sobowale: Yeah, absolutely. And I think there’s two key things that you have to really consider when you’re thinking about legal technology and access to justice. So there’s one piece of what I like to call legal education, which is, you know, “If I’m somebody who’s in a traffic accident, you know, what are my rights? What if I want to go to court? What is the process to go through in that?” And there’s people who are working on those kinds of things to kind of lay out, you know, “This is what the process is.”

You know, online dispute resolution is another more sophisticated form of that. With technology like ROSS Intelligence, when you put that in there, if I’m somebody who is self represented, then if I have access to that technology where I can do searches in plain language, that can really change the game in terms of me representing myself in a legal system where I may not have those tools.

But then there’s a second key point to that that others have made, which is that technology can’t fix all the access-to-justice problems.

So with ROSS Intelligence, one of the cofounders—the reason why he created this program is because of that memory of his parents going through family law court. And this is a huge issue in access to justice right now with the number of self-represented litigants in family law. So something like ROSS Intelligence can make that research cheaper, but for self-represented litigants, they might not still understand the system itself.

So I might have the tools to search all this case law on custody and access, but if I don’t really know the fundamentals of custody and access I won’t know what I’m looking for. So that’s kind of the double-edged sword here when we talk about legal text and access to justice.

Victor Li: One other thing I wanted to ask you about was there was an interesting stat that I pulled from your story. You say that in general, U.S. businesses spend about 3.5 percent of their revenue on research and development, and in some industries it’s a lot higher. I think like biotech and some other industries like that it could be as much as like 13 percent. I don’t have the stat off hand. In the legal industry though, you said that it’s less than 1 percent, why do you think that is?

Julie Sobowale: Yeah, I think—and I talked to Dan Jansen about this from Dentons, who has a background in advertising and marketing. And in our conversation we talked about how in the legal industry, we don’t really think of R&D, pure R&D. So, you know, trying to push the boundaries with innovation, entrepreneurship, those kinds of fundamentals that other companies do that we would think for, say, a telecommunications company and cellphones.

And kind of the reason why is, our business model has been very rooted in the partnership model. And the partnership model really isn’t created for that type of R&D thinking. So the revenues which we would receive, we would have to take a percentage out of it to do the R&D. Well, that percentage is usually allocated to the partner. So you already kind of have a conflict right there.

And also, the way that law firms have traditionally operated in terms of we get clients by referrals, we get clients in—you know, we do a little bit of advertising, word of mouth, all of these kind of fundamental traditional ideas, they’re not again really rooted on why you would do R&D, why would you pour money into R&D?

Because again, we see it as other industries where when they do R&D they’re trying to get a competitive advantage, whether it’s a new product, a new service, a new experience. And in the legal industry that idea just hasn’t caught on yet. That’s why NextLaw Labs is still interesting because they see it as a competitive advantage to think this way because they know there’s very few law firms out there that are.

Victor Li: So obviously, I read your feature. I thought it was very good. And I’m sure it will get a very good reception next month, or maybe it won’t, who knows, these are lawyers that we’re talking about. It focuses on a lot of different things as opposed to just NextLaw Labs and things along those lines.

One thing you talk about is predicative analytics. And this is something that I’ve been hearing about for a while now, software and computers that can predict outcomes that can just kind of bring in a much more powerful type of system than what has been available before.

Did you get a sense while you were reporting as to how widespread this is? Like, are there a lot of companies or a lot of law firms that are using this kind of predictive analytics, or is it still very much in the infancy?

Julie Sobowale: Yeah. This is also something that I’ve been hearing about for the last couple of years. I think the first time I heard about it was when I was reporting on predictive coding a few years ago. And from the time that I saw this idea until the time I wrote the piece, I think it’s still in its infancy. And what I mean by that is, there are companies who are using it, but it’s not as wide scale as for example e-discovery, and the various e-discovery tools that are out there. Even predicative coding, I think, there’s at least a sizable minority that’s using that technology.

But in terms of predictive analytics that’s not—that hasn’t been as prominent yet as I thought it would be. But I think as one of the interviewees said, it’s really kind of in the education phase, so people aren’t really sure what is predictive analytics. You know, if I talk about traffic patterns and our GPS or various apps predicting the traffic and predicting the quickest route, then you understand what I’m talking about. And this is really the same thing with predictive analytics on a more sophisticated scale. So I don’t think a lot of companies have caught on yet.

And I use “companies” specifically because the ones that are using it are mostly corporations’ in-house counsel, who are using it for various usages—compliance is a good example. But it really hasn’t caught on yet, I think, in terms of the traditional law firm, or the traditional client.

Victor Li: Fair enough. So I also want to just ask you in general just based on—obviously you’ve been reporting on legal tech for a while now. And the constant knock on technology that I hear from lawyers is that it’s not as reliable as an actual human well-trained, well-regulated lawyer. Do you see merit in that view, or do you think something else is at play like protectionism?

Julie Sobowale: Yeah. So I won’t be politically correct this. It’s definitely just pure protectionism and I’ll explain why. I was talking to the CEO of eBrevia about this, and this is in the piece about, you know, why he decided to switch careers because he had many different avenues which he could go into. But basically, he just wanted something different in his legal career. And he basically wants to help lawyers do their job by creating the tools that he has, which is basically helping to make contracts easier and that kind of thing. And I just don’t really know why lawyers keep pushing back against this.

The legal industry is so behind compared to other professions, even professions that are heavily regulated. The medical field is a very easy example. There are many different innovative and forward thinking things that are going on in the medical field, from e-files to—I mean, just incredible things. Even where I live in Nova Scotia, using big data to predict the number of cancer cases that would come up every year. So it’s kind of that kind of thing. I don’t really know why in the legal field we have to be so shy about this. Technology is already a part of our society and our life in every facet, in every facet of any job, profession, industry.

And we should not think, “OK, well, you’re a human being and I trust you more than this computer, even though I know the computer would be more efficient to do it.”

I think a really simple analogy is: “If I’m going to write a letter to my client, I’m going to type it. I’m not going to handwrite it. I’m not gonna use the typewriter.”

And that might seem like a simplistic idea, but really at this point, I think, that’s what we’re dealing with. Why wouldn’t you use the computer instead of using the typewriter? That’s really what we’re talking about here.

Victor Li: So obviously we’ve talked a lot about your feature and what’s in it. I also wanted to talk about just some other things as well that aren’t necessarily in the piece.

You mentioned earlier online dispute resolution. Could you talk a little bit about that and what are some things that you’ve seen, or just what you’ve heard with regards to how effective it is, how widespread it is, and whether you see that catching on?

Julie Sobowale: Online dispute resolution is very interesting, because there’s been a lot of research done on this for, I would say, the past 10 years—and a lot of different programs then have popped up. I know in Canada there’s a company in Quebec that created an app that helps manage your files, so that the judges and the lawyers—it’s kind of like cloud computing for online dispute resolution. In British Columbia they’re taking the steps forward and they’re incorporating that into their legislation. So basically small claims court would become ODR essentially, so you would have the option to do it the online way if you wanted to go that route.

That’s a more simplistic way of saying it, but there’s other parts associated with it. So those kinds of things give me a little bit of hope.

But with something like online dispute resolution, there really isn’t a tool out there that I would say, “This is a game changer.” Especially given that the idea has been out there for so long. I mean, this has been out there since I would say, at least as early as 2005, 2004, when people were talking about it via email, and even earlier than that in terms of research.

And so yeah, I don’t see any major changes, except what’s happening with British Columbia in terms of actually making that available to all, and they’re incorporating it into mobile technology. I think that’s really the future of ODR at this point, particularly since most people now have a smartphone compared to a laptop. And I’m talking about a specific, you know, age gap as well. You know, if you talking about anybody under the age of 30, and you’re talking about online dispute resolution, you’ve got to talk about a smartphone. But yeah, to me, that’s kind of where we’re going.

Victor Li: And I’m actually glad that you talked about generational issues and young people and what not. To kind of tie it back to your feature, one point that you make is how younger lawyers are more comfortable with technology and are more used to using it in their professional lives.

So do you think that resistance to technology is really just a generational issue when it comes down to it, and that as the older lawyers retire or leave the profession that you now have lawyers that are coming up that are used to using technology and that are comfortable with it and know what it can do?

And they’re not worried that it’s gonna—you know, that Skynet is gonna rise up and take over and just start War Games. Do you think that that’s the case, or do you think that there will still be these kind of protectionist issues and the obstacles to widespread acceptance of legal technology?

Julie Sobowale: Yeah, there’s a lot there. We have to be careful about the robots, right?

Victor Li: Well, of course.

Julie Sobowale: Actually—yes, of course.


Victor Li: Well, that won’t—I’m not gonna lie, that scares me, so.

Julie Sobowale: No, no, no, I know. And I think there’s more legal issues with things like driverless cars than whether I want to use something like ROSS to do my legal research, but I digress.

Actually, I thought at first that it was generational, particularly when I was in law school and I started writing about this. And I thought, “Oh, this is—you know, this is just typical older people. They don’t like computers. And we’re young and we like computers,” and this whole thing.

But actually, you know, I’ve met some really good lawyers who have been in the profession at least 20, 25 years, who are really championing for changes in legal tech. Of course Jordan Furlong is an obvious example. But also where I live there’s a lawyer, his name is David Fraser. He has a privacy blog. It’s very popular. He’s on Twitter. He’s very tech savvy and has been for a very long time. And he’s been practicing for a very long time as well. He’s a partner at McInnes Cooper.

So I see this more as a cultural issue because there are lawyers who are willing to adopt this technology, but our legal culture is: “I trust a human being more than the machine.”

And you don’t have that in industries. You don’t have accountants saying, “I trust that accountant more than QuickBooks.” You don’t have that, you know, and again even in the medical field. We just have a culture where it’s like “this is how it is and we need to protect the sanctity of legaldom and our profession.”

And really we need to move forward. We’re in danger of making ourselves obsolete. When you think of companies like LegalZoom, there are people out there who won’t think of LegalZoom as a law firm, they’ll think of LegalZoom as providing legal services. And that switch has already kind of happened.

So I think lawyers really need to be careful about this and really just be open to new ideas of working as a lawyer. I’m not talking about thinking as a lawyer, or the fundamentals of what it is to be a lawyer, but just in terms of the practical day-to-day work, there is technology out there to make it simpler.

We don’t have to do it the old, you know, tried-and-true way. There are better ways and there are cheaper ways, too. You know, that’s kind of the point I wanted to make in the feature: that there are ways that will help you get more clients, that will make your clients happier because it will cost them less to do the work, and it will make your associates happier because they’ll spend less time doing inefficient things.

But I do want to make a quick point about younger lawyers, because I remember when I made a presentation at my old law school at Dalhousie University about this. There are young lawyers, they don’t even want to be a part of any of this altogether, and they’re opting out of legal practice because they see the old antiquated system, or they’re saying, “I’m just gonna go out on my own and do it differently.”

So there is a rising generation of young lawyers who are completely opting out of that old system and are trying to figure out different ways to basically practice law.

It’s not a coincidence that, you know, the cofounders of ROSS or eBrevia or other companies like this are young, are younger lawyers, because they see that “I want to make a change and I’m not buying into this old system.”

Victor Li: Right. Or very often they’re people who, they were at a law firm for a little bit, and then they just had to leave and go out on their own. You know, either because of inefficiencies that they saw, or just because they thought that they could do something better.

Julie Sobowale: Yeah, exactly. I’ve talked to quite a few young lawyers, and I’ve written about them in the past. There’s a—I forget the name of the company off the top of my head—oh, Clio. So when I read about Clio a few years ago, and I talked with some of the people who use their product, these are young lawyers who are, you know, like 20s, 30s. And they want to practice law, but they don’t want have to use Simply Accounting or other programs that are just not efficient for what they want to do. They’re not intuitive, and they know that there’s better technology out there. They know there’s better ways to do it, you know. And they’re trying to do it in their own way, maybe as a solo firm or a partnership firm with two or three people.

So we kind of need to think about those guys, too. You know, because we want to keep those lawyers in their profession. If we keep giving out a message of “technology is bad,” we’re gonna lose a lot of good lawyers in the long term.

Victor Li: Right. All right, that was all I had for you, Julie. Was there anything that you wanted to talk about or anything else that you wanted to cover before we sign off?

Julie Sobowale: No. It was a pleasure to chat with you. And I really hope everyone reads it with an open mind. I’m a lawyer myself, and so I just want other lawyers to know about what’s going on out there and how the technology out there can make their lives a little bit easier, just a little bit easier. So I just hope everyone reads it with an open mind.

Victor Li: I’m sure they will. Thank you Julie. Before we sign off, do you have any contact information that you would like to leave for our listeners?

Julie Sobowale: Sure. Readers can find me on Twitter @NSLegal. And I would love to have a chat with anyone. And if people would also like more information about different companies or other people who are talking about legal tech, feel free to tweet me.

Victor Li: Great. I’m Victor Li, thank you again for listening to the ABA Journal’s Asked and Answered.

End of transcript

Updated on April 5 to add transcript.

In This Podcast:

Victor Li
Julie Sobowale is a freelance journalist and lawyer based in Halifax, Nova Scotia, specializing in legal reporting. She writes about trends in the legal industry including legal technology, innovation, entrepreneurship, diversity and major shifts in legal culture. Her work has appeared in publications from the American Bar Association, the Canadian Bar Association, the Canadian Corporate Council Association, Canadian Lawyer and the Nova Scotia Barristers Society. She’s also given presentations on legal trends, alternative careers and legal education. She graduated from the Dalhousie Schulich School of Law in 2012 and was the recipient of the Dalhousie Faculty of Law Leadership Award.