Photo by Charlz Gutiérrez De Piñeres on Unsplash

What I am about to write is completely anecdotal, but I think is relevant to the current disruption that we are seeing in the legal industry when it comes to automation of legal tasks. I know, most of you are asking, “how does that vary from all your other posts, Greg?” Quite frankly, it doesn’t, but I wanted to warn the readers that this one is my experience, and your mileage may vary.

I want to paraphrase something that I heard last week from a guest speaker at the AALL conference in Austin.

Lawyers don’t like automation of tasks because it cuts into their billable hours, and thus it costs them money.

This is a good line to say to a bunch of law librarians and legal tech professionals, but it’s kind of a cheap line, and in my experience, not all that accurate. It’s a line that has been said in different forms for the twenty years or more that Knowledge Management processes have been hailed as best practices for law firms. Add to that the history of business process improvements, Six-Sigma implementation, and now Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, and you’ve got a new platform to tell the story of “the attorneys won’t adopt these ideas because it will cut the time they charge their clients.”

I have to say that I have yet to talk with an attorney that hinted that this was a serious barrier for efficiency. Oh, I am positive that some of you have run into these attorneys, I’m just saying that it has not been my personal experience.

What I have seen, however, is the challenge of implementing these processes and tools into the workflow of the attorney without causing a major disruption, at least initially, in their ability to do the work. Sometimes this disruption lasts for months. Again, I’ll give you another anecdote.

When I was at ILTA last year, I watched an amazing presentation from some very forward thinking lawyers who created automation tools and machine learning techniques to process a type of transactional documents. The outcome was pretty amazing, and reduced the time to process documents down from dozens of hours down to a few minutes or hours. Plunk in the data… press the “go” button, and watch the machines do the work. The idea was to make the lawyers focus on what they are really good at, and that is dealing with the highest risks the clients face, and not waste time on no-risk, or low-risk items in the portfolio. Lawyers could then charge an alternative fee deal that still made them a nice profit, but at the same time, reduced the clients overall spend. On top of all of that, it also sped up the time spent on the matter.

Now, you might read that last part and say, “I can see why lawyers would refuse to do that. It cuts their own throats by making less revenue.” That sounds like a solid interpretation. However, let me add in one more detail to the story which I got after the presentation when I asked the presenters this question. “How long did it take you to automate this one type of deal, and how many people did it take to get it operational?”

The answer was that it took six to eight months, four or five consultants and programmers, and two or three attorneys who could test the system as it was being created, and give feedback. That was for one type of deal. I don’t think I’m going too far out on a limb here to say that the cost of this was probably in the mid six-figure range or higher.

Granted, the first item brought to market is the most expensive, and it is very possible that the next type of deal would only take a few weeks to bring online, and a diminishing amount of time for the next deal type, and the next deal type. How many law firms are going to take this risk with the upfront costs in the hopes that eventually they will get a return on their investment?

So let’s get back to the idea that lawyers don’t like automation because it costs them billable hours. I think that the real answer is that most lawyers don’t like automation because the change is too costly, both in time and money. High risk can mean high reward, but it is still a high risk.

Perhaps the story I’m using here is a situation where we attempt to do too much all at once. I’m a big believer that law firms don’t lack for resources which improve overall efficiency. What they actually lack is actually applying the existing resources they have. Instead of looking at the latest bleeding-edge technology that promises reducing months of time to seconds, look to the tools you’ve already bought that will reduce ten minutes off an hour of work. It’s not as cool, but it is more likely to work.

I wrote a post last week in which I called for a moratorium on the term Artificial Intelligence in relation to the law.  Instead I suggested that you should just replace AI with the term Automation because “they’re exactly the same thing, at least as far as the current legal market is concerned.”

Some people took me to task for over-simplifying the issue. Fair. Some seemed to think that I didn’t understand that AI and Automation were separate things, and they helpfully sent me links to Wikipedia pages and dictionary definitions of AI.  Very kind, but unnecessary.  I assure you, I understand the differences.

My underlying point – and admittedly I sometimes meander on my way to getting there, which can cause confusion, consternation, and even anger among my less patient readers – was that, much of what we call artificial intelligence in the legal industry is simply the automation of historically manual processes.  And if we refer to these things as “Automation” instead of “Artificial Intelligence” we are more likely to have intelligent, thoughtful, and meaningful conversations about the future of legal practice, than we are to run screaming through the halls, crying uncontrollably, and tearing out our hair for fear of the robots coming for our jobs.

I know many of you will find this hard to believe, as I usually revel in setting verbal fires, but my goal in abandoning “Artificial Intelligence” as a term was to improve the overall quality of discourse surrounding the use of Artificial Intelligence in the practice of law.

John Alber, former Strategic Innovation Partner at Bryan Cave and current Futurist-in-Residence for ILTA, called me out for over-simplifying.

Arrgh!  Fine. I’m not going to fight with John, he was the first person I ever met and an ILTA conference and, more relevantly, he’s right.  So I suggested an alternative.

But Kenneth Grady, former CEO of SeyfarthLean and current Legal Future Evangelist rightfully suggested:

So I stewed.  Pushed it to the back of my mind and focused on other far less interesting, but more profitable things like work. Until today during lunch, when I was reading an article on Augmented Reality and it suddenly hit me.  The middle ground between Artificial Intelligence and Automation is Augmented Intelligence.

I suggested this alternative to my twitter colleagues and Kenneth Grady helpfully suggested the addition of Human.

And there it was, the term I was looking for.

Augmented. Human. Intelligence.  #AHI

It’s much less hysteria inducing than the term Artificial Intelligence.  And arguably, it’s a more accurate representation of what is happening now in the computer assisted practice of law.

So, today I am calling for a moratorium on the term Artificial Intelligence in the practice of law (unless you are actually talking about a Turing machine that bills by the hour), because whether we’re discussing Watson, Ross, Kira, or Kim, we’re talking about Augmented Human Intelligence.

I am calling for an official moratorium on the term Artificial Intelligence in relation to the law!  Everyone please just stop using it. It’s a needlessly charged word that only confuses and clouds the underlying issues whenever it comes up.

From now on any time you feel the need to use the term Artificial Intelligence, replace it with Automation.  No seriously, they’re exactly the same thing, at least as far as the current legal market is concerned. Whereas, AI carries connotations of ‘robot lawyers’ replacing people, Automation seems friendly, simple, even mundane.  That’s good.  Automation is the future of legal practice.

My friend Ron Friedmann posted a Twitter poll last week that got my hackles up.

Come on people!  Really?  Collaboration software!?  Biggest impact on legal market in next 3 years? Do people even read the question before they start ticking boxes?

Don’t get me wrong, I am a huge fan of collaboration software.  I firmly believe that modern collaboration tools are a fundamental requirement for any modern law firm, akin to a document management system, a productivity suite, and maybe a handful of lawyers.  But the ‘most impact on legal market’?  Tech that has been widely available for 10 years, that everyone is already using, even if IT or firm management frowns on it.  I don’t think so.

The correct answer, and the one that was chosen by a majority of respondents, is Automation.  I know, Automation wasn’t officially a choice, but look at the options again.  AI/Machine Learning and Contract Analytics collectively received 58% of the votes. Contract Analytics is a form of AI/Machine Learning and they should have both been listed as Automation tools.

Woo hoo!  Ron’s readers aren’t dumb, they just got a little confused by the options. Easy to do, when the confounding term AI rears it’s ugly head.

This was all bouncing around in my head yesterday when I saw the following article on Bloomberg BNA.

Another Law Firm Adopts Automation Technology

In the latest sign that more and more legal services are being automated, Akerman has announced it will operate a data center that allows corporate clients to quickly look up data privacy and security regulations without having to consult a human lawyer.

Look at that. The beauty of it. The simplicity. The near total lack of hysteria about robots stealing jobs. And guess what words don’t even appear in the article:  Artificial and Intelligence.

But you know what that article is about?  The biggest impact on the legal market in the next 3 years.

Automation.  Or as I like to call it, the creation of Legal Engines, by Legal Engineers, to automate the practice of law one task at a time.

If only someone had foreseen that such a thing might happen.

Image [cc] Kaptain Kobald

There was a very interesting article on Neota Logic’s blog yesterday that has really had me thinking ever since I read it (and re-read it a few more times.) The article, what will the lawyers do now? Dancing With Robots, The Second Machine Age, and The Hammer Song, covers the whole issue of “running with technology” versus “running against technology” in the legal space, but there was one section on legal services and the second machine age that has really made me think about where we are as an industry, where most of us are within this second machine age, and who will be the winners and who will be the losers. Let’s breakdown the six “steam engines of legal services” that Neota Logic identifies:

  1. Online legal research, the law’s first foray into big and digital data For those of us in the law library and research fields, this is our baby. We’ve been the engineer and conductor of this steam engine for the past thirty-odd years. It is one of those technologies that you would have thought by now would be such a standard in the industry that everyone practicing law would be experts. However, we all know there are still Luddites out there that fight this advancement, or simply ignore the technology as much as possible. In fact, think of the number of attorneys that proudly say things like “I don’t even know what my [insert online resource here] username and password is.” So we keep pushing to limit those that ignore the technology and work on those (usually, but not always) younger attorneys to keep them up to date on the latest changes, advancements, and innovations that help them practice law more effectively.
  2. Electronic mail and networks, the harbinger of infinite interconnectedness
    Email has been the biggest bringer of change in the way lawyers conduct business, maybe since the business of law began. No other technology has been as widely adopted as email. However, the use of email has become stagnant, and many attorneys use it the same way today as they did when they adopted it back in the 90s when they signed up for AOL or CompuServ email addresses. They use it as de facto databases and as historical archives. In a way, email has begun to eat its own tail and its usefulness has plateaued and in a way has become a barrier for new and better communications tools. In addition to email, the networked computer system has been so integrated into the daily life of law firms, that when the network is down, work comes to a standstill. Email and the network are the two big steam engines in this category. However, items like Document Management Systems, Client Relationship Management Systems, and shared network resources have also entered the day-to-day lives of  the law firm, but not nearly as widely adopted as the first two engines.
  3. Document automation, drafting contracts with software rather than pencils
    Most, if not all, firms have these resources. The idea being that no document should be created from scratch and you should use the wealth of prior documents to assist you in the creation of the next document. Whether it is add-ins for Microsoft Word like Westlaw Form Builder or standalone products like HotDocs, the process of document automation and drafting tools should be something that every transactional attorney understands and uses. As most of you may have figured out by now, that is typically not the case. Once again, a technology is there that can significantly assist the attorney, reduce risk, and decrease the amount of time and effort spent by the attorney, and decrease the cost to the client, yet the struggle continues to do things the way we’ve always done them, and fight the advancements in technology.
  4. Search, from Recommind for lawyers’ own stuff to Google for everything else
    Ah, search. Only slightly behind email when it comes to overall technology adoption by lawyers. Of course, the easiest (and most widely used) is Google. Many attorneys start (and sadly some end) their research with Google. Librarians brought in an internal version of Westlaw and Lexis with resources like westkm and Lexis Search Advantage that mimicked the legal search tools’ capabilities to identify legal citations and structured language. IT Departments brought in Enterprise Search Tools like Recommind to index everything else. All of those great tools still pale in comparison to the comfort and amount of use that Google still plays in the everyday life of the attorney. When a technology like Google is so overwhelmingly adopted, it makes it that much more difficult to get attorneys to see, and use, other technologies that actually create a better result simply because they are so comfortable with Google. In fact, most of the new search tools attempt to mimic Google’s simplicity in order to trick/convince/ease the attorney away from the massive search engine. As most of us are finding out, that’s still a difficult feat to accomplish, and as Ryan McClead mentioned in his Why You Can’t Find Anything At Work post, user expectations and the reality of Enterprise Search tools don’t exactly mesh very well.
  5. Predictive Coding (a/k/a technology-assisted review), replacing armies of junior lawyers
    This technology is maturing in the e-discovery market, but I think it is still in its infancy when it comes to its overall potential. Replacing hundreds of lawyers with technology has been the steady mantra of Predictive Coding, and as courts remove barriers to this technology, the e-discovery cash cow that has helped many law firms over the past decade, may start to dry up. I’ve been a big believer that Predictive Coding has been too narrowly focused on document review, and that there is much more opportunities for law firms to use this technology to better index internal documents, use it to enhance project management, and tweak it for projects that we normally hire data stewards to conduct. Document Review attorneys aren’t the only ones that will eventually lose their jobs to this technology.
  6. Expert systems, context-specific guidance at scale and speed
    This is where products like Neota Logic and in some regards products like KMStandards (formerly kiiac) are making inroads to the legal market. Processes that rely upon rules, precedence, and fact sets will be automated. Those that don’t believe this are destined to find themselves left out of this great change that is coming to the legal industry. This steam engine is different from the five previous advancements. Expert systems will create ways for savvy law firms to produce revenue streams that are completely unlinked to the time their attorneys spend on client work. Law firms will work with these providers to leverage the firm’s knowledge, experiences, and expertise to create products that are licensed to the client and supported by the firm and provider. The client will use these tools without the aid of the firm, and this can open up opportunities for law firms to recapture work that was shifted in-house years ago. Although there is great opportunity here, it also means that those that ignore the advancements in technology will be left behind and eventually marginalized.

When you hear reactions to these technologies in the form of “clients pay me to practice law and advise them, not to be a techy” remind the attorneys that this list of six steam engines aren’t about the future of the legal profession, they are about today’s legal profession. If they can’t handle these six advancements, then how can they be expected to handle the next big change that is coming?

I’ve been testing out an interesting product this morning called Vocalyze. The gist of Vocalyze is to take web content and covert it into audio and play it as new articles are published. Vocalyze is pretty simple to use, and works on the desktop, iOS and Android platform. There are a number of options to read specific featured blogs or individual blogs that have embedded the Vocalyze widget into their WordPress platform blogs. You can also connect your Twitter or ReadItLater posts into Vocalyze and have it read those posts in real time.

What I wanted to see was if Vocalyze would actually take my RSS feed and monitor it for new content and read that to me as new blog post are pushed out. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a direct way to link my Google Reader to Vocalyze… but, I did discover a two-step work-around that does practically the same thing.

For a number of months now, I’ve automated my RSS feed into a Twitter stream using Google Reader and an automated Twitter feed product called dlvr.it. I created a Twitter account and named it @xlambertg and used dlvr.it to connect my Google Reader account’s RSS address. The initial process is pretty easy to set up:

  • Create a Public Folder in your Google Reader, and place any of the blogs you want to automatically feed in that folder. View the “Details and Statistics” in the dropdown list for that folder, and copy the Feed URL.
  • Go to dlvr.it and sign up for a free account. Then link that Feed URL to the Twitter account (I created an unmonitored Twitter account to do this so that it didn’t conflict with my regular account.
There are some additional bells and whistles that dlvr.it does, but I keep it pretty simple. Although the @xlambertg twitter account is unmonitored, it still has almost 200 followers as of this morning, so others seem to like my RSS feed list, too.
Now, back to Vocalyze. 
Vocalyze allows you to enter a specific Twitter account into your playlist, so I simply entered my @xlambertg account and it pulls up the latest feeds and starts reading them out to me. Very cool!
I’m still in the initial stages of testing this out, but so far I can tell you that I like the switching between male and female voices between each new blog post. In my opinion, the male voice is a little more realistic than the female, but both are pretty decent sounding automated voices. Right now I’m listening to “Web Law Predictions for 2012” from Steven Matthews at Slaw, and the Vocalyze reading of the post is pretty easy to listen to and understand. 
Go give Vocalyze a try and let me know if you have any additional tips and tricks for how you can use this product to automate blog posts into audio content.

Toby was kind enough to highlight for me a very interesting conference scheduled for April 15 at Berkeley Law School. It’s called the New and Emerging Legal Infrastructures Conference (NELIC), and is hosted by a legal startup called Robot Robot & Hwang — two of the partners are ‘robots’; the third is Tim Hwang, formerly a researcher at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard, and currently a strategist and analyst at The Barbarian Group.

The firm’s mission is “to marshall a universe of thinking from the world of technology, startup, and computational science to bear on the often staid and conservative world of legal practice.” And the sessions for the conference dovetail nicely with this:
  • Quantitive Legal Prediction: “How might recent work in machine learning and natural language processing influence legal practice and strategy in a big way? To what extent can judicial and legal decision-making be reduced to statistical modeling and prediction?”
  • Legal Automation: “What is the current state of the automation of legal tasks, and how far can it scale? How much can be replaced by these applications, and what does the legal profession look like in a world of broad automation and commodification?”
  • Legal User Experience and Interface Design: “The design of easy-to-use ‘human-readable’ user interfaces to manage complex legal tasks holds the possibility of radically democratizing access to the legal system. What is the broad impact of abstracting from legal text? What are the best practices in the design of these interfaces?”
  • Legal Finance: “As banks and other firms continue to experiment with the finance and investment of lawsuits, what is the long-term impact on the legal marketplace? Could it open the door to securitization and larger tradable legal assets? What would be the opportunities? The risks?”
A pretty interesting line-up, and a varied set of speakers as well. I’m scheduled to speak as part of the Legal Automation session, and will try to blog about as much of the conference as I can.