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AI in legal tech: what it is and what it isn’t

AI in legal tech

You may be hearing a lot about artificial intelligence (AI) in the legal industry these days. While the concept may seem foreign, there are already law firms using artificial intelligence.

In addition, many in the legal industry are being bombarded with marketing for tools that are AI-enabled and will supposedly make their practice more efficient.

All of this means the legal industry needs a better understanding of what we mean by the term ‘AI.’ This includes its current and potential uses within the legal industry, as well as ways they may already be taking advantage of AI.

When you know what you’re talking about, it will put you in a better position to not be dazzled by claims of magic with legal AI software, but instead evaluate those claims objectively.

What exactly do we mean by the term ‘AI?’

Before getting into the uses of AI in law, let’s start with the term ‘AI’ itself.

Yes, it stands for artificial intelligence — but this is nothing like the talking androids of Star Wars. Instead, AI generally refers to the use of digital technology to perform functions using facets of human intelligence, such as learning and problem-solving.

There are many examples of the everyday use of AI with smart devices. When your smartphone uses facial recognition or your smart speaker recognizes your voice, these are both common uses of AI.

There are several different subsets of AI.

For example, machine learning refers to the use of data to predict future outcomes.

Natural language processing is a technology that helps computers better understand human language so that it can be analyzed.

Some artificial intelligence is dedicated to completing a specific, focused task, while other types of AI are meant to handle a wide variety of functions and tasks with flexibility.

You don’t need to know all the different technical terms for artificial intelligence. For the sake of the legal industry, it’s most useful to understand how these technologies are applied.

What are some examples of AI in legal tech?

Through a variety of digital platforms and types of software, AI has greatly impacted the legal industry. Below are some common areas where artificial intelligence in the legal sector has a transformative effect.

Legal research

At first blush, legal research would appear to be an area of law where AI would not have a great impact. After all, doesn’t it require the mind of a real lawyer to do the deep thinking and analysis required for effective research?

But in actuality, AI is already making its mark in this area.

The Natural Language search in Westlaw uses AI to allow users to do searches using the language in the same way humans naturally think and communicate. In other words, you can type your search query like a human instead of trying to phrase your searches like a computer.

For those who recall Westlaw’s past usage of Boolean terms and connectors for searches, this is a welcome change.

Document review and automation

Another useful area for AI is document review.

Document review is an especially time-intensive task for legal professionals, especially in the modern age of electronic discovery.

Today, document searches can encompass numerous types of data including emails, Zoom calls, and videos. The data may be stored on hard drives, mobile phones, or cloud platforms.

You must comb through a lot of stuff to find what you need.

AI-enabled software can speed up this process. Not only can AI facilitate searches in a wide variety of formats, it can look for documents similar to flagged documents, saving valuable time and expense for legal professionals.

Document automation can also utilize AI for the creation of documents. By using software templates to create documents based on data input, document automation can help with speed, efficiency, and uniformity of documents.

This is especially useful for the creation of common documents such as non-disclosure agreements.

Contract review and analysis

One of the key functions of lawyers is to review and analyze contracts, often for the purpose of conducting due diligence.

AI can enable a firm to analyze and track thousands of contracts at a time. You can find exactly what you’re looking for in seconds instead of hours.

AI-enabled software can search for, highlight, and extract relevant contract language for analysis. It can also allow you to review contracts written in different languages and provide suggestions for edits.

Legal analytics

Legal analytics allows legal professionals to gain litigation insights through analysis of case documents and docket entries. Using AI, legal analytics tools can analyze opposing counsel’s chances of prevailing on a case and identify litigation trends.

Electronic billing

Electronic billing is the modern alternative to paper-based invoicing, and AI stands ready to assist.

AI-enabled tools can automate the recording of time and activities. They can also adjust time entries and automatically route invoices to the correct approvers.

What AI is not

We’ve gone over a lot of examples about what artificial intelligence can do in legal technology. Now, let’s clear up some common misconceptions.

AI is not a computerized employee.

Software that uses artificial intelligence is designed to assist humans to get things done faster, more efficiently, and more accurately. It doesn’t replace the human minds in your firm, and you can’t replace an employee with a computer program.

Using AI does not guarantee accuracy.

It may seem like your computerized assistant should eliminate human error, but AI doesn’t just work by itself. A human has to input the data for the computer to analyze, and if there’s a problem with the data, there’s a problem with the result. It’s important to have a human check anything created by AI to make sure it’s accurate before you use it.

Finally, AI is not a superhuman intelligence.

All artificial intelligence is only as smart as the engineer built it to be. If you expect a scifi movie thinking machine, you’re going to be disappointed. The majority of AI just feels like using every other computer program. The AI features are generally focused on specific tasks, and you just see the results. After all, how often do you know how your tech tools are getting the job done?

A note about the technical definition of artificial intelligence

You might also hear people saying that machine learning is not truly AI, and they’re technically correct.

In programming terms, true artificial intelligence must be able to make logical decisions.

Machine learning doesn’t actually make decisions — it collects data to find trends, and then it calculates the best response based on what humans have done in reaction to similar data. Chatbots are an example of this; they have pre-programmed responses to many keywords, and as users introduce new keywords, the bot looks for commonalities and tries to give back the most frequent answer.

However, for the purposes of most AI-powered legal tech tools, machine learning has a very similar outcome to true artificial intelligence, and it’s much more reliable and cost-effective to make. You don’t need to split hairs over the two terms.

How can you make informed decisions about AI in legal tech?

It is critical to remember that AI is not a cure-all for the difficulties and challenges in the legal sector.

To implement AI successfully, your firm will still need legal professionals to build the different automation systems. Moreover, your firm will need to create buy-in to the new systems among all attorneys and staff using them.

The bottom line? Do not be dazzled by claims that artificial intelligence will transform your firm’s way of doing business, turning it into an “AI law firm.” Yes, that tool might help you work more efficiently and accurately, but it doesn’t propel you into the future any more than your email account and CMS do.

Instead, take an objective look at the practical effects of any new tool. Then you can take full advantage of the promise of AI in legal tech.


  • Mike Robinson

    After a fifteen-year legal career in business and healthcare finance litigation, Mike Robinson now crafts compelling content that explores topics around technology, litigation, and process improvements in the legal industry.

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