Legal AI, Automation and The Delivery of Justice

Throughout today and also this week there will be several news stories about legal AI and automation applications appearing on Artificial Lawyer. There will be a lot of ‘what’, i.e. what is this and what does it do? There will be a lot of ‘who’, i.e. who has made this and who is using it? And there will be some ‘how’, i.e. how does this work and how can lawyers use it?

But, here is a question that is not often asked: Why?

Amid the hurly-burly of news announcements, conference speeches and social media chatter we often forget the bigger question: why is legal AI and automation, and a better understanding of legal data and process management something of importance?

Why is it worth writing or reading about? Why is it an area that is growing rapidly and seems to generate levels of excitement and enthusiasm you don’t get in many other parts of the legal world?

Why? 

What this is really all about.

Here’s a couple of thoughts, but Artificial Lawyer would welcome your views on this also. So, here we go.

It’s all about Justice, (with a capital J). It’s about the bigger picture type of justice that we talk about when we also discuss things like freedom and democracy and equality.

And to explain this, let’s approach the subject from a different angle for a moment.

What do people with a dispute or facing some form of life changing challenge want? What do businesses want as they form agreements with other parties, or when those same parties renege on the terms of the deal? They want justice, that’s what they want.

They don’t want lawyers, or courts, or technology. They just want justice. They want what they know and want to be right, to happen. And they want this if they are the poorest person on the planet or the richest corporation on Earth. It’s a human need that we all share, it’s intrinsic to society and its healthy operation. Without it, things go very bad, very quickly.

Yet, we live in a world where even in rich countries like the US and UK, large parts of the population and large parts of the business community don’t really have access to justice or a hope of winning even if they can get access to the levers and pulleys of justice that we have developed.

Research on both sides of the Atlantic show that (depending on the survey) around 70% of SMEs don’t make use of a lawyer, even when they have an issue that is clearly ‘a legal problem’.

The vast majority of individuals on an annual average salary also simply could not afford a lawyer to do anything other than perhaps to help them buy or sell a home, anything more complex than that and you can forget about access to justice. Yes, there are no win/no fee type claims, but that is a small part of all potential legal needs. And, the significantly poor, well, unless the State is willing to cough up funding, then forget about it.

Why is this? A simple reason: money.

Lawyers are expensive. They have always been expensive. Moreover, the process of delivering justice is a slow and lugubrious and inefficient way of doing things that always implicitly tends to increase time and cost for the seekers of justice. What seems like a simple matter easily spirals into a nightmare. And this terrifies most people who have limited means. And hence, although lawyers and law firms are not turning people away, many people simply don’t bother to even make an approach to a lawyer or firm. 

But, let’s not rest there. What about the large corporations that are shelling out sometimes $1m in legal fees per year, with others spending over $100m? Now, at first glance you might say: ‘Who cares about big business? It’s not my money.’

After all, General Counsel (GC) are spending other people’s money when it comes to legal fees, and wow, are they good at spending other people’s money! No GC is going to starve because they’ve decided to spend $200,000 for a law firm to do some due diligence on an M&A deal, rather than finding a better and more efficient way of doing it.

The toxic combination of time and money.

Perhaps the gross inefficiency and sky-high costs of the commercial legal world are nothing to worry about? Everyone’s making $$$, right? Why the long face?

But, consider this point. Most large companies exist because of external investment, from public or private shareholders. Many companies with public money are in fact the repositories of our retirement and insurance policies. Maybe we’re even fortunate enough to be able to provide some personal investment to a fast-growing company. Either way, the reality is that the money GCs are spending is real money with real people on the other end of that transaction, even if they are invisible to the legal world.

Spend too much on legal work and you are hitting the profit margins of a business. In a world where margins can be wafer thin, that matters. For smaller businesses some of the most potentially business-harming events are related to legal fees. And many a start-up Artificial Lawyer has met say that the biggest single expense they ever faced was paying for legal help, often for what appeared to them as a mundane, though necessary, issue. In short, seeking justice was so expensive it notably harmed the business, i.e. it sucked so much money out of it at an early stage, that it hurt.

So, to sum up. The ‘legal world’ as it stands today does deliver justice – to some, and at a price – some – can pay. However, we can’t improve things unless we face facts and the facts are as above: justice at present is by no means available – yet – for the majority.

Legal AI and Justice

And that is where legal AI and the broader use of automation comes in. As mentioned, people don’t want lawyers, or courts, or legal AI, or document automation, or legal process improvement or data analysis systems….or anything else with a fancy name. They just want justice for themselves, for the businesses they own, hold an investment in, or work for. That’s all.

If the use of better business processes, automating tasks with whatever tech (AI, or anything else), helps to deliver on that overriding need for justice then all of this flurry of activity and invention is good.

All part of something bigger.

Understandably we can get sidetracked. We are wowed by talk of AI, by new applications, by debates about legal jobs, the pros and cons of legal tech in relation to law firm profits, the frustrations of process improvement people who want to just get on with the job of changing things, and the continuing bewilderment of many that inhouse legal teams are still the worst purchasers of external services since history began. But, all of this is part of a bigger picture: the access to and delivery of justice.

Artificial Lawyer will leave it here for now. But, I just want to end with a final thought:

AI and automation matters to the wider world, to you and me, to society, because it can – and can, rather than will is the operative word here – help deliver better access to justice. And that’s something to care about and a reason to be interested in this field of technology.

Will it deliver greater access to justice and address the crazy cost situation we are in today? That is up to us as a legal industry and a society. But, can it? For sure.

Whether we are looking at legal bots and expert systems that can help those on legal aid, or can help guide a person through a complex legal issue when a human lawyer would be too expensive; or automated systems that speed up processes and reduce costs so that the huge 70% group of SMEs can finally get a taste of commercial justice too; or the growing mass of large scale applications for law firms and inhouse teams that can save money and reduce our inefficient legal world’s ‘tax on doing business’, all of this helps and all of this matters.

And that’s why Artificial Lawyer reports on all of this. Is the New Wave of legal technology fascinating? To me, yes, it is. But, there is something larger at work here and that’s why ultimately it’s of importance.

( What do you think? If you’d like to add to this debate, please drop me a line and I’d be glad to host your views on Artificial Lawyer. )