Tech a look at a new model

Forming partnerships with creators, IT companies and publishers could be the future for law firms


Lawyers are ambivalent about IT. Is this because of the impact on profitability IT budgets now have? Is it because when lawyers think about their roles they focus on the loftier elements? Or is it because relatively few have scientific backgrounds? Whatever the answers, they may need to be revised.

We cannot assume there is something inherently different about legal skills and that a computer could not at least assist. Whenever I have this discussion I remind people that in 1997 a computer beat Garry Kasparov at chess. Whether or not Deep Blue had in-game support from the grandmasters hired to assist it, it won. When lawyers think about IT we focus on word processing and other office software, but the most important recent advances are in the area of artificial intelligence.

IBM has gone on to look for other challenges. In 2011 a descendant of Deep Blue called Watson beat Ken Jennings, the human champion, at Jeopardy, the US TV quiz. The format of Jeopardy requires contestants to identify questions from the answers rather than the other way round (so the screen will show ‘The most populous state in the US’ and the contestant should say ‘What is California?’). For a computer to do this requires both access to information and an ability to understand the natural use of language.

Watson’s latest task was to review medical case histories to train itself to make medical diagnoses. IBM reports that Watson can process up to 60 million pages of text per second, including text in natural language. This is important because most medical information is unstructured, comprised of sources including doctors’ case notes, medical journals and public health statistics. Watson works with clinics that ‘train’ it to understand data.

Last month IBM reported Watson’s first commercial application: assisting in lung cancer diagnosis and treatment recommendations at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering ­Cancer Center. The medical profession in the US is now considering how far the automation of medicine can go.

There is a clear challenge here for law firms. Technology is an increasing part of legal practice and supports many aspects of firms’ work, but has not yet had the same disruptive influence as in many other industries. While we don’t want to go down the track of seeing easy answers and IT solving all problems, these developments are taking place at the same time as other disruptive influences in the industry, such as legal process outsourcers, themselves innovative users of IT.

An interesting possible future for law firms involves partnerships with technology companies and content owners such as publishers.

In the media world generally the boundaries between creators, publishers and consumers are blurring. YouTube, Twitter and every other form of media provide examples. We see it in legal practice, with the amount of material freely shared by firms on their websites and other platforms, the use of common resources and the sharing of know-how through trade bodies. If we aim to ‘give away the paper and sell the advice’ computerisation will be able to help with both.