It has been long said that the legal profession is a very traditional one and that its practitioners are slow to change. However, the only thing that is constant is change. In this era of rapid technological development, no industry is immune to digital and technological disruption. It has been predicted that over the next decade, the manner in which lawyers will function will dramatically change. Recent studies show that as much as one-third of legal activities could already be automated.
Now, and not just because of the COVID-19 pandemic but otherwise as well, the legal industry has, slowly but surely, begun adopting and embracing various aspects of modern and new technologies. Traditionally, progressive law firms have used software for document management, case management, knowledge management, time recording and billing, etc. Recent developments in technology have enabled the legal profession to automate various processes and operate more like a services business, than the ‘profession’ that it is. The efficiencies that technology have enabled have resulted in improved service levels, higher quality, and in some cases, a reduction in legal costs for clients.
Digitization of documents
One of the first instances of adoption of modern technology in the field of law was the digitization of case law and other legal documents. For example, state and federal courts’ decisions in the US were made accessible and available to lawyers. The same has been done in India, where one can simply conduct a search for case law online, rather than through books and journals. The cloud and data centers are slowly replacing physical libraries in law offices. Implementing machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) in research tasks can go a long way in increasing efficiencies and accuracy and reducing costs. This has been practically applied in the USA where a law firm employed ‘ROSS’, an AI platform built on IBM's cognitive computer Watson, which was designed to read and understand language, postulate hypotheses, research, and then generate responses along with references and citations. Similar AI systems are being adopted by law firms globally, including in India, albeit at a slower pace in comparison to global trends.
Due diligence and e-discovery (for evidence)
Another area is the use of AI in legal due diligence and discovery exercises, where AI and automation can play a very important role in streamlining processes and increasing the efficacy of the exercise. In litigation matters, lawyers spend considerable time perusing a plethora of documents to locate relevant evidence. The same is also done in due diligence exercises. Today, case and transaction documents are often available in virtual data rooms, and by using e-discovery services, relevant words and phrases can be identified very quickly from a sea of documents to collate the relevant pieces of evidence that may be useful for a case.
Contract drafting and review
Additionally, AI has started being utilized in contract drafting and review, although its full potential still remains untapped. Complex transactions require a whole host of contracts to be entered into and these contracts are meticulously drafted and reviewed by lawyers. The average time taken to prepare such contracts leads to a massive workload for lawyers and may sometimes lead to a logjam of work. Now, AI is being utilized to prepare initial drafts of contracts based on inputs from lawyers, thereby considerably reducing the time to be spent on such tasks and also reducing the chances of error.
Case preparation and management
Case preparation in litigation matters can greatly benefit from AI as well. Platforms such as Lex Machina, a legal analytics solutions platform, uses natural language processing, machine learning, and technology-assisted human review to deliver case resolutions, remedies, findings, and accurate counsel and party data. It presents resulting data in a way that makes it easier for legal professionals to access insights and understand trends that are relevant to a specific legal matter. This has potential in bridging the knowledge and experience gap between seasoned litigators and lawyers who are just starting out in their practice.
Client interface and collaborative working
Apart from the impact on the manner of working of lawyers, there are various changes that clients as experiencing. New technology is the key that will enable lawyers to meet the changing demands and expectations of their clients. In the age of remote working and online meetings, clients’ expectations have also developed to favor such practices. No longer are clients required to necessarily visit their lawyers’ offices and hold in-person meetings. During the lockdowns, lawyers were required, as others, to work from home. Efficiencies were maintained and client work did not suffer because of the extensive use of video conferencing, collaborative working tools, cloud services, secure document signing, internal communication channels such as Slack, online security, and other technologies. Given the success of working remotely during the pandemic, some law firms may continue with a hybrid model of working.
Impact on judicial institutions
The functioning of judicial institutions are also being impacted by the adoption of technology. The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the same. As a result, during the lockdowns almost all court proceedings shifted online. Filings, hearings and all other aspects of litigation proceedings have been digitized. While e-filing and online case management already existed in various jurisdictions, including India, it is now more pervasive. Courts have gradually begun to hold in-person hearings, and it remains to be seen if online hearings continue after the pandemic risk reduces. However, the adoption of e-filing of documents will accelerate, since the efficiency resulting from ease of document sharing and information retrieval during court proceedings have been experienced by all stakeholders.
Impact on other legal aspects
A relatively new technology, blockchain is relevant in the field of law and is fast becoming an eventuality that is disrupting industry around the world. Blockchain’s main feature is its ability to transparently store data in a non-fungible ledger.
One application of blockchains is in smart contracts, which also uses AI. Smart contracts are self-executing computer protocols that enable drafting of agreements and let users generate customized drafts in accordance with inputs from lawyers and clients. Another application of blockchains is in awarding intellectual property rights where ownership of the IP in question can be easily verified using blockchain.
Blockchain also has applications in the field of criminal law, where collecting evidence and ensuring its proper chain of custody is at the core of any criminal investigation. Blockchain allows the chain of custody to be documented correctly and regularly.
The use of new and emerging technologies is often perceived as being a double-sided sword, having both pros and cons. The primary threat perception of the use of new-age technologies is that they will render the role of lawyers in certain practice areas redundant. While it is easy to fall for this cliched trope, the truth is that new age technologies will compliment rather than replace lawyers. It is an established fact that AI merely replicates human intelligence and simulates it; it does not possess it.
Digitization across law firms and other organizations in the legal field will result in increased efficiencies and will enable them to operate in a more efficient manner, which may in turn enable management to monitor internal capacities and capabilities of their organization and optimize overhead costs.
Thus, it seems that the legal field cannot be ring-fenced from the impact of new technologies for long. It is an inevitable change which has already begun.
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