In the morning before I leave for work, I ask my Google App how long it is going to take me to drive to the office and what the weather will be.
In the evening when I return home, I ask Alexa (the virtual assistant that powers the Amazon Echo speaker) to continue reading aloud my current Kindle book so I can keep up the pace on my goal to read 52 books this year. Spoiler alert: As of the time of this writing, we’re 12 weeks into 2017 and I’ve read four books. Sad trombone.
While I was hate-watching March Madness (the unofficial mascot of Boston College sports is schadenfreude), I ask Siri, “Hey Siri, how many times has Grayson Allen tripped people?”
One: There is no more overheated topic in legal technology in 2017 that gets the legal geek squad sputtering in breathless anticipation of imminent transformative change than the trifecta of AI, machine learning and robots.
Two: They’re a bit early, they’re overly amped up, and they’re not wrong.
Clucking our collective tongues at the chicken little prognosticators of a legal robot rebellion (will there be more than three laws? There had better be, or those robot lawyers are going to be boooooored…) is satisfyingly reassuring of the notion that tomorrow in law practice is probably going to be a lot like today. But outright dismissal of the arrival of AI in legal tech is a mistake.
Like Siri and Alexa inching their way into our lives (Amazon Echo was the best-selling product across all of Amazon this past holiday season), AI is also inching its way into legal tech. It’s not quite ready to pop on a tie and grab a briefcase and freak everybody out in your District Court, but it’s definitely having a moment.
It’s not clear what that moment is, exactly, but it’s having one.
A few weeks ago, The New York Times ran a clickbait article headlined, “Tech Roundup: Will Robots Replace Lawyers?” The day before, that same newspaper ran a second article titled, “Sorry, a Robot is Not About to Replace Your Lawyer.” Yes, it’s weird that the seemingly responsive article was published first. Cognitive dissonance, thy name is print journalism.
The whiplash between those two articles pretty well captures the feeling that something is happening with AI and legal tech, we’re just not entirely sure what yet.
I think the smart money for lawyers here is to start paying attention to AI and to think of it as an opportunity rather than a threat. (Going deep into the old SWOT analysis grab bag for that reference.) Think of it as an improving set of tools to help erstwhile human lawyers do their jobs more efficiently.
Take a look at legal tech startups like ROSS Intelligence, a legal research service which uses AI to make a faster more intuitive research tool for lawyers. If you like to spend time on Twitter, follow ROSS founder, Andrew Arruda (@AndrewArruda) or Fastcase CEO Ed Walters (@EJWalters), two really smart guys who produce a constant stream of thought-provoking stuff on where this technology is headed.
You’ll find that companies like ROSS Intelligence are not just some Silicon Valley VC-funded fever dream—with a little poking around you’ll notice they are racking up a client roster of law firms very quickly, including some you know right here in North Carolina. We’re at the start of this curve in legal tech, but the starter’s pistol has gone off.
This is the part of the continuum between denial and alarm, and that’s a good place to be. Noting with some dread that there is not a single science fiction movie or book that ends with the robots happily serving humans forever (with the possible exception of the Jetsons, but who really knows what that Rosie the Robot Maid was thinking…), for now we are in a place where these AI tools can make lawyers lives and practices better.
Take advantage of the opportunity. If you’re not sure how, just ask Alexa.
Erik Mazzone serves as the Senior Director, Membership Experience for the North Carolina Bar Association. He spent several years as director of the NCBA Center for Practice Management, where he functioned as a consultant to solo and small firms on all aspects of law practice management, including marketing, technology and finances/planning.