Artificial intelligence is far from the sci-fi fantasy portrayed in films such as Ex Machina and 2001: A Space Odyssey. But it is a powerful tool that is becoming increasingly pervasive in business and our personal lives.

The legal industry is taking notice. Machine learning, a branch of AI where computers ‘learn’ without being explicitly programmed, is spurring development. Natural language recognition will take it even further.

Should lawyers be worried? AI won’t take clients out for lunch, or stand up in court to argue an emotionally charged case. It can help law firms, however, in processing vast amounts of data, and delivering conclusions, usually far quicker than any team of lawyers could.

Various technology providers are coming together to offer the legal industry potentially profound capabilities that incorporate AI. Dentons’ NextLaw Labs and Ross Intelligence, for example, are working together on an app that uses IBM’s supercomputer Watson. Lawyers will simply ask ROSS their research question in natural language, as they would a person, then ROSS reads through the law, gathers evidence, draws inferences and returns an evidence-based answer.

Thomson Reuters has also just announced it will use Watson to analyse complex data and to increase the speed and precision of business decisions for its law firm and professional services clients.

Watson is not the only kid on the block. RAVN Applied Cognitive Engine (RAVN ACE), which reads, interprets and extracts specific information from documents has piqued the interest of law firms. Berwin Leighton Paisner (BLP) is the first among them to implement the system and has created a ‘contract robot’ to work within its real estate practice.

BLP’s lawyers see it as a positive development, according to Matthew Whalley, head of BLP’s legal risk consultancy, as it frees them up to focus on higher value work. “The robot has fast become a key member of the team,” he told the press. “It delivers perfect results every time we use it. Team morale and productivity has benefited hugely, and I expect us to create a cadre of contract robots throughout the firm.”

Artificial intelligence is going to become the norm in law firms over the next three to five years, said Karl Chapman, chief executive of Riverview Law, in an interview with Managing Partner magazine. But he warned that just having AI technology won’t be enough – it will be how a firm exploits it to give them competitive advantage: "You're going to have to have a very strong technology understanding. I don't think it's going to be enough to be technology enabled, I think you have to be technology led."

AtThe Lawyer’s Business Leadership Summit, Clifford Chance’s head of innovation, Bas Boris Visser, argued that the likes of Watson will soon be able to do what a trainee or paralegal can do – although the jury is out as to when.

This all has far-reaching implications upon what human resources the legal industry will actually need now and in the future. If AI will be able to take over what a trainee can do, how can aspiring lawyers enter the legal industry? Arguably, a hybrid professional is needed – one who understands both law and technology. Artificial intelligence still needs human input, and a professional who can programme systems to deliver better legal services will be in great demand.

And while AI doesn’t need coffee breaks, holidays or tire of repetitive tasks, it doesn’t have emotional or creative intelligence, nor can it build relationships or act in an agile way to an unexpected situation. As Andrew Ng, director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, told Bloomberg Business: “There will always be work for people who can synthesize information, think critically, and be flexible in how they act in different situations.”

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