Back to the Future For Legal AI + Automation

The future is in our past.

What does that mean? Read on if you’d like to know more.

At this time of year many people will be trying to figure out what will happen in 2019, or even longer term. Instinctively we know that time’s onward arrow will have some impact. Time moves ever forward in one direction. And with it will come change. We can no more avoid this change than we can our past.

Looking ahead is essential to any business, as how else can one plan and prepare? How else can one aim to leverage new opportunities for growth? And how else can a business, legal or otherwise, get into the best strategic and operational shape without looking where it’s going?

So, ‘futurism’, or whatever you want to call it, is a business essential. Personally, I’d just call it common sense that a law firm or legal team would want to consider the future. But, the bigger question is how do you do that? How do you figure out what may happen next?

One method I often use is to look at the past and search for signals that may resonate today and therefore likely tomorrow as well.

With this in mind, let’s go back 100 years to 1918 and see what we can see, (and many thanks to Wikipedia for its awesome historical data store).


A hundred years is not a huge leap in time, at least for historians, and certainly not for scientists, given that homo sapiens have been around for 300,000 years. Some of us may even have relations alive today who were born around 1918.

So, what can we see that happened that year or near to?

  • February 6, 1918 – Women’s suffrage in the United Kingdom: Representation of the People Act gives most women over 30 the vote for the first time.
  • And, the same year, Judge Mary Belle Grossman and Mary Florence Lathrop became the first two female lawyers admitted to the American Bar Association.
  • April 1, 1918 – The Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service in Britain are merged to form the Royal Air Force, to become the first autonomous Air Force in the world. The first manned flight had only taken place 15 years earlier in the US with the Wright brothers.
  • And, November 11, 1918 – World War One came to an end, the first partially mechanised war.
  • 25 January, 1915: First transcontinental telephone call (3,600 miles), with Thomas Augustus Watson in San Francisco receiving a call from Alexander Graham Bell in New York City.
  • And, Ford produced 435,000 automobiles, 15 years earlier in 1903 it had produced only around 1,700. It was also just one of dozens of new car companies in the US and all around the world.
  • The world also saw in 1916 the birth of The Belmont, an electric car manufactured in Wyandotte, Michigan, by the Belmont Electric Auto Company. They produced four- and six-seater electrical limousines, along with other commercial electric vehicles.

OK. Fascinating. But what does that tell us?

  1. Things that are now fully being realised have their roots in actions and developments in the past, see: women’s rights and electric vehicles. And that the road to great developments seeing complete realisation can take much longer than one would expect.
  2. Scale is often a factor in socio-economic change. Advances in technology enable the production of cheaper ‘tech goods’, which increases their market, which means those companies can make more money, which leads to further investment and innovation. In 1914 a Model T Ford cost the average US worker four month’s wages. Ten years before a vehicle would have been out of reach of all but the very rich.
  3. The arrival of new tech and change today has its roots in something of a ‘family tree’, an historical taxonomy one could say. I.e. without early telephony there are no smart phones today. It’s an evolutionary journey, with each new generation of product building on the previous ones, as if ‘technical DNA’ is being passed down the line, mutated positively and then there is another iteration, innovation, transformation.

And, here’s one for the lawyers. Data on lawyers back in 1918 was thin, but there was a figure for solicitors in England & Wales in 1975 – when there were just 31,000 solicitors, and when the population of the UK was 56 million people.

Today there are 145,999 practising solicitors in England & Wales, with a UK population of 66m. I.e. there are around five times as many lawyers here now than in 1975, but with only 18% more people.

What does this tell us? Something has driven a huge increase in the need for lawyers. Several factors are at play here, including: a relatively massive increase in ownership of property, globalisation and international trade, increased credit flows in the economy that have supported the growth of business. I.e. macro-economics also drives significant change in the legal sector; and we have also seen a wave of new tech that has supported huge increases in knowledge sector productivity.

Could this growth have occurred without any technological change, such as using computers and email to massively increase productivity inside a law firm? Possibly, but lack of tech change would probably have been a brake on growth.

It also suggests that as law firms take on technology it leads to further growth, or at least certainly doesn’t lead to shrinkage at an industry level.

OK, this piece could look at many more things. There is no end of history out there and all of it is fascinating. But, to wrap things up and to come to the point of all of this: how does this relate to AI and automation? The above tells us a few things:

  1. Patterns started long ago, such as the partial automation of the Ford car factories with the first production line approach to manufacturing, are only now really starting to make themselves felt in the legal world – and that a very long ‘gestation period’ is not that strange given the above.
  2. The great new legal tech we have emerging today, such as AI tools that use machine learning and natural language processing are both built on the successes of earlier technology, and in turn suggest that further innovation will come, making legal AI tools more powerful, more productive and having a greater impact than before. To assume that Kira, Luminance, Seal et al, will somehow stay the same, would be to assume the Model T Ford will be the only model of car Ford would ever make. Change is built into tech, as much as ageing is built into humans. 
  3. Tech would appear to be integral to the success of the legal world, both in terms of helping to drive growth in the market around it, which drives up demand for legal services, and also has helped increase its own productivity.


When those in charge of a business, or business unit, ask themselves: what is going to happen next, then we can at least conclude that change is certain.

But, the real question perhaps is not whether X or Y will change, but rather at what pace it will change, and when will certain socio-economic, or technological  developments follow through to full realisation? We may also want to focus our attention on factors of scale. I.e. change will surely come, but how widespread will it be, how broad will be the adoption of it?

The use of legal AI and automation tools has only just begun and they have already made headway into the largest law firms around the world. But, when looked at from an historical perspective it’s also clear that there are immense changes to come.

By Richard Tromans, Founder, Tromans Consulting + Artificial Lawyer, Dec 2018.