5 Questions Lawyers Should Ask About AI

Five Questions Lawyers Should Ask About AI

By Laura van Wyngaarden, Co-Founder & COO of legal AI company, Diligen

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is one of the hottest emerging technologies, rapidly gaining momentum as it promises to transform the way we work. Buzz around its ability to automate work and predict outcomes is exciting, yet the chatter often clouds our perceptions and complicates the realities of introducing this powerful technology into the practice of law.

As those in the legal industry debate AI’s merits and risks, ponder their responsibilities to it, and attempt to foresee the future of the profession, we serve ourselves well by considering these five thought-provoking questions about the use of AI in the legal practice:

1 – Do lawyers have an ethical responsibility to leverage AI in the practice of law?

Lawyers are well versed in the ethical responsibilities of their profession, but what does ethical responsibility look like when it comes to new technologies, such as machine learning and AI?

Consider the tech that precedes these newcomers—email, electronic case organization and eDiscovery. At one time each of these seemed like risky new technologies, yet now they are part of the responsible practice of law. But, what about AI?

Let’s consider an example from another field. If a surgeon could adopt the latest surgical tools and improve a patient’s chances of survival – do they have an ethical obligation to do so? Would we consider them unethical if they refused to learn new techniques and thus gave their parents riskier operations than necessary?

AI-powered legal tech has the power to help lawyers do faster, more thorough and more cost effective legal work. If we can do this work better and more efficiently for our clients – do we have a responsibility to do so? While leveraging AI may not yet be considered an ethical obligation, I suspect this is a conversation we will be having many more times in the years ahead.

2 – Does entrusting technology with a greater role in the law create or mitigate risk?

Initially, the introduction of virtually any new and disruptive technology brings doubt and fear. Skeptics see embracing new tools as handing over hard-earned authority to machines, and fear that by doing so we are opening ourselves up to unnecessary risk. But is this fear warranted?

As humans, we tend to underestimate the risks in processes we are already familiar with, while overestimating the risks involved in doing things in new ways. For instance, M&A due diligence typically involves students or junior associates spending many late nights reviewing contracts to meet tight deadlines. Because lawyers are accustomed to this practice, they don’t view this as a risk, though clearly sleep-deprived associates under time pressure are prone to errors.

Contract review tools leveraging AI currently have the ability to help legal teams to thoroughly review very large sets of contracts, rapidly surfacing key issues (like a change of control provision that requires consent) buried in the documents that might have been missed if the work was being done manually. While the new tech may attract greater scrutiny than legacy processes, combining skilled lawyers with the right tools can create significant, measurable risk reduction in legal tasks.

I suspect in years to come we will see insurance companies offering law firms lower premiums if they use AI tools for certain legal tasks, or even mandating the use of the tools as a condition of coverage.

3 – Is the role of legal counsel changing?

Numerous studies show that lawyers believe AI and machine learning technologies will threaten their roles and lead to job cuts. Consider that from the 1980s we saw a huge increase in the number of accounting jobs after spreadsheet technology became available, driving down the cost for calculations and significantly boosting demand for these services. We may well see the same in law.

AI has potential to put the lawyer back into the skilled advisory role by reducing time spent on routine, time intensive tasks that don’t require years of specialised training.

In law, one of the  fastest growing use cases for AI is leveraging machine learning to help lawyers review and summarize contracts. This technology can rapidly surface key provisions in a set of contracts and do much of the time consuming work of compiling contract summaries. This allows the lawyer to spend more time considering the implications of what AI has uncovered and advising their client.

As machine learning technologies allow us to do things we have never done before I expect that we will also see new types of legal roles emerging over the next few years – just as we saw the rapid growth of a plethora of new financial management roles in the last few decades when spreadsheets made the the ability to make rapid, sophisticated calculations standard.

4 – Do clients really care about how lawyers work?

For the most part, clients don’t really care how lawyers work. Clients want the right level of service, at the right cost, to produce the desired outcome.

Increasingly, lawyers’ spending time doing routine tasks that could be done more effectively with the assistance of the right tools will be considered a misuse of time and money.

5 – How do we begin to embrace, rather than fear AI’s role in our profession?

Like any unknown, we fear AI to the degree that we don’t understand it. Learning more about AI’s capabilities and powers – what it can and can’t do right now – goes a long way towards alleviating fears and moving past misconceptions. This prevents us getting either caught in the hype or dismissing all tools out of hand and missing out on the very real and powerful benefits machine learning technology can bring to many legal tasks, helping us to work smarter, faster and more efficiently.

Undoubtedly, AI is rapidly becoming a practical reality throughout the legal field. By better understanding its abilities and our responsibilities in leveraging it, lawyers can create more fulfilling roles for themselves and better serve their clients as AI tools become a valuable – and normal – part of the way of the way legal work is done.

About the author: Laura van Wyngaarden (pictured above) is Chief Operating Officer and Co-Founder of Diligen, a leading intelligent contract assistant for lawyers and law firms.

Van Wyngaarden is a leading expert on legal tech and AI. She holds undergraduate and honors degrees from the University of Cape Town and a Masters from Oxford.


  1. Laura van Wyngaardenn’s fine article struck me. I was a U.S. attorney before moving to AI and blockchain. In 2012, the American Bar Association modified Rule 1.1 of its Model Rules to require lawyers to attain a level of basic competence as to the benefits and the risks associated with new technology. This modification seemed a little late to me, inasmuch as the federal judiciary had adopted discovery rules pertaining to electronically stored information in December of 2006. It’s taken about that much time for U.S. state bar associations to follow suit. But as of February 2018, more than half of the U.S. state bar associations (28) have adopted the Duty of Technology Competence. Thus, besides being at a competitive disadvantage, attorneys who fail to develop a basic understanding of AI (e.g., deep learning), and blockchain, face a heightened risk of discipline or malpractice. Is there a similar UK duty of technological competence?

  2. A concise and thoughtful post. Your points reflect much of the conversation at the Seal Insight Conference in London yesterday, attended by lawyers, legal ops and procurement leaders. As you say, embracing rather than fearing AI is the key to moving forward. Lawyers are used to putting in the long hours reviewing contracts, so putting in a few hours to read up on the subject should be a breeze!

  3. Thank you for drawing attention to the ethical side of this question in asking whether lawyers have an obligation to use the best tools available to them to ensure the best result for their clients. Law societies, bar associations and law schools really should be taking more of a lead in addressing this and related questions related to legal ethics and legal technologies.

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