Disrupt without Disrupting: A Ph.D.’s View How Law Firms Can Use AI to Solve Real Business of Law Challenges

law firm billing

Disrupt without Disrupting: A Ph.D.’s View How Law Firms Can Use AI to Solve Real Business of Law Challenges

by Emmanuel Kyrinis, Vice President, Product Management, Aderant

Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) can sometimes face an exaggerated perception primarily due to pop culture. For years, science fiction movies have filled our minds with images of autonomous lethal machines conquering humanity. This idea is just that: science fiction.

AI is just complex algorithms aimed at solving real problems. There are practical applications – Alexa, Google Home, Siri, and Cortana are all examples of AI in the consumer market that impact the way we get information and control our environment.  These devices aren’t perfect, but they are getting better over time and becoming an integrated part of our daily routines.

Applying AI technology to improve productivity in our business processes also hold significant potential. For example facial recognition, which is already used for credentialing and auto-tagging photos on social media, could be applied in other ways.  Imagine a meeting where AI passively recognizes the participants in the room.  When it understands the conversation is moving towards scheduling another meeting, it can automatically propose time on our calendars. What often takes several email exchanges, the AI completes without us even having to think about it. Additionally, it can create the appropriate time entries based who was participating in the meeting along with the appropriate narrative details based on the meeting context.

Does that feel Big Brother-ish? Maybe. It will take time for some of us to get used to it; but we have already accepted autonomous cars where we have our hands off the steering wheel driving at 70 mph down the highway (the legal limit on some interstates here in Georgia, I’d hasten to add).

I envision a near future where AI can make a substantive difference for law firms by increasing productivity and assisting in decision making. Applying AI technology, we can improve the wip to cash process by automating the time entry and bill markup tasks turning them into review and approval tasks. With the appropriate workflows this could lead to “no-touch billing.”

Sound like a big idea that stretches too far? To the contrary, some law firms are already working projects along these lines – and are finding success.

We recently had a chance to host one such law firm on a live webinar featuring Dr. Jason Adaska, Director of Software Engineering and Innovation Lab at Holland & Hart LLP.  Within the innovation lab, the law firm hires software developers, data scientists and front-end designers – “folks that can really dig into AI and make it happen,” as Dr. Adaska put it.

He took attendees through a journey of understanding AI by first, covering the trends in legal tech innovation that are driving AI; and second, overlaying common law firm challenges and describing how AI can solve some of these.

The following is my interpretation of his excellent presentation.

The Three Trends Driving Legal Tech Innovation

AI is just one of three overall trends in legal technology that are driving innovation. How these come together is important to understanding the potential of AI because these are interrelated.

a) Mobility.

What happens at your firm if the email goes down during the workday? It’s incredibly disruptive, and it’s a good way of showing how dependent law firms have become on mobile applications. We rely on mobile connectivity both in and out of the office.

For example, observe how lawyers will coordinate things over email from a mobile device in-between meetings. It’s become so easy that we take mobile access today for granted. That’s important to highlight because mobility today delivers value in a low friction manner, which means people, including lawyers, will use it.

b) Cloud.

People in the legal community tend to view the cloud in one of two ways: it’s either real and tangible or it’s a distant and ethereal concept. For the end user, the cloud means accessing an application through a browser rather than a traditional desktop solution. Yet for technologists, it means a way to develop applications that scale – and to do this faster.

Some end users don’t even notice when the cloud switch has been flipped – and that’s what’s magical about it:  the cloud allows innovation to happen sooner, but not in a way that’s disruptive to the lawyer.

c) ML and AI.

Not too long ago, savvy technology pundits thought machines would never be able to solve complicated math problems. Today, software is so good at doing this that “number crunching” has become synonymous with “computing.”

This goes a long way to explaining what AI and ML can do today. It’s taking natural language and allowing computers to “crunch language” the same way it does numbers. In a decade, technology will be able to solve language problems the same way it solves arithmetic equations now.

Moreover, it’ll be frictionless – like an AI that recognizes who is in our meeting and automatically scheduling the next meeting for us.

How to Apply AI to Common Law Firm Challenges

Lawyers and law firms have a disparate list of challenges. These are based on their own unique experiences and the environment at their firm. However, there are areas of overlap and Dr. Adaska characterizes those as follows:

  • Maximize efficiency and profit without sacrificing quality;
  • Reduce the time spent on administrative tasks;
  • Find time to learn or adopt new technology; and
  • Deliver better legal services more quickly and at a better price.

These challenges are found in several forms including ranging from pricing pressure from clients, competition and ALSPs – to “distractions that eat into value” and sap law firm margins.

Understanding the trends driving legal innovation, in comparison to common challenges in the business of law, leads Dr. Adaska to make several general recommendations for incorporating AI.

1) Disrupt without disrupting.

Technology solutions that propose radical changes will have low adoption, and that isn’t unreasonable. For example, consider the risk in asking attorneys to use a new tool that will make them twice as effective but completely change how they work.

It takes time that attorneys don’t have to learn the tool and if there’s a chance it fails, then all that time was wasted. There are stereotypes about lawyers and tech adoption, but these overlook the fact that the proposition of effectiveness is at best a hypothesis and it is easy to get that part wrong.

“Disrupt without disrupting,” is a better path for growing user adoption.

2) Supercharge tech tools your lawyers already use.

Rather than disrupt attorneys and their workflow, find ways to “supercharge the things they use already.” Two tools that are widely used in law firms already are email and word processing. If you tap into these capabilities, you are in a much better position to yield high adoption rates.

3) Embed AI into attorneys existing workflows.

In 2018, Harvard Business Review published an article about the challenges of artificial intelligence in business. It highlighted the fact that the challenges aren’t whether the system was effective but rather how to weave these tools into the way people work:

“Systematic redesign of workflows is necessary to ensure that humans and machines augment each other’s strengths and compensate for weaknesses.”

Dr. Adaska pointed out this isn’t a technology issue, but rather a problem of “packaging and concept of operations.”  Piggybacking on existing capabilities is good – but embedding AI in an attorney’s workflow is even better. As a result, lawyers will use it and the firm will be able to capitalize the value AI is capable of delivering.

4) Tackle repetitive tasks first.

Touches cost money. A good example of this is how the number of eyeballs and hands involved in the billing process has grown over the years. Billing is an administrative task that cost money, rather than generates revenue. Of course, it’s necessary and important too, but the point is that it’s a prime area for applying automation including AI and ML.

Legal tasks Dr. Adaska believes have AI potential include document assembly, document management, workflow automation, legal reasoning, data management and analysis to support the way attorneys work.

AI to Augment Rather than Replace Lawyers

AI and related concepts post great opportunity for law firms. While some fear that somehow these tools will replace lawyers, the ideas Dr. Adaska lays out suggests something different:  AI will free lawyers to do what they do better than technology: focus on client relationships and practice law.

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