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A Holiday AI Post: We're all on the same team

Here’s a holiday blog post for you. For some, it’s Christmastime, the conclusion of Hanukkah, or prep for Kwanza, Festivus, or another holiday. For me, it’s basketball season. And AI is here for it.


Today, you can find AI doing everything from diagnosing cancer to cooking cheeseburgers. Robots deliver items to your room at the Axiom Hotel in San Francisco and store your luggage for you at Yotel in New York. Christies is selling AI-generated art for over $400,000.00. Alexa, Siri, Cortana, and others are now omnipresent companions in our daily lives, Bank of America wants Erica to be one, too. Robotics and AI as applied to manufacturing are a pivotal point of US-China economic debate, as China looks to achieve AI dominance to fulfill Made in China 2025 and the US looks to replicate the assembly line’s impact of the Industrial Revolution and use robotics to revive its domestic manufacturing industry. Even the IRS is getting techy; the IRS2Go app allows taxpayers to check refund status, make tax payments, and get free tax preparation assistance in English and Spanish. The music we listen to, the news stories we read, the customer service we call for, increasingly, come to us courtesy of technology.


Zach Harper knows this. An NBA sportswriter and veteran of big brands like ESPN and CBS Sports, Zach touched on the rise of AI in sports media for the Athletic, a new subscription platform for sports journalism. It is must-read. Reading his piece, and it’s uncanny how much his industry parallels the legal industry. Cable cutting and the struggles of print media in the digital age have contributed to a bleaker landscape in sports media, much like the legal industry’s threats from post-Recession cost conscious clients, alternative service providers, and the Big Four accounting firms unabashed entering into the space. But Zach notes you can feed the stats of a game into a computer and out comes tomorrow’s column. Lawyers fear the same as AI-empowered solutions proliferate the legal industry.

Indeed, the modern-day John Henry story is playing out before our eyes. LawGeexAI put its AI against 20 US corporate lawyers in reviewing NDAs in an issue-spotting race. It took the lawyers an average of 92 minutes to complete their task. It took the AI 26 seconds. The lawyers achieved an 85% accuracy rate. The AI? 94%.


Before you dust off your resumes or open that B&B in the countryside, the participants’ comments after the study showed no doomsday talk. Instead, the focus was on pairing human expertise with the new resources humanity has created. Justin Brown, a lawyer who participated in the contest, may have said it best: “either working alone is inferior to the combination of both.”


Law firms are getting wise to that exact sentiment. From small firms to AmLaw juggernauts, managing partners, CIOs, and tech committees are looking into AI-empowered research tools, document automation software, legal analytics, and any other way technology can increase efficiency, enhance attorney workflows, and improve client services. This is not at the expense of attorney hiring. Indeed, the most current NALP numbers indicate that biglaw hiring remains robust.


So are the robots taking over, or are we just recognizing we can be better lawyers when we embrace technology in our day to day?


I previously discussed the arguments against AI, the idea that robots will replace lawyers. While there are partners who hold that belief, there are increasing AI examples of firms, the government, and corporations providing new, convenient, quick solutions to client problems. It parallels the music and entertainment industry, who saw similar technology disruption, as a shifting of opportunity. All traditional doors aren’t closing, and new doors are opening. Whether you’re a lawyer, a violinist, or a sportswriter, today’s economic landscape is being changed by technology. It isn’t eliminating all the jobs, it’s creating new opportunities to leverage tech with sophisticated lawyer skills. Before you dismiss that as spin, peruse a careers page and you’ll see firms posting for attorney and non-attorney jobs asking for some varying mix of traditional training and other skills, some tech, some not, that law firms value. Like the automation paradox manifesting in manufacturing, law firms are valuing those skills that are uniquely human along with technological acumen.


Zach Harper understands this. A robot can report on Minnesota’s Derrick Rose scoring a career high 50 points against the Utah Jazz, or Zach Randolph paying fans’ utility bills at Christmastime. But no robot can capture the redemption arc Rose is on overcoming injury after injury to regain his MVP form, or contrast Randolph’s charity as a Memphis Grizzly to his turbulent reputation as a Portland Trailblazer. It’s why the Athletic, Stadium, and other sports media upstarts are seeing people subscribe. Similarly, an algorithm can pare down research results, a program can generate a purchase and sale agreement, but the sophistication and expertise that keeps clients calling is on the lawyer.


A realtor acquaintance of mine with New York’s Bouklis Group put it best comparing his own industry: “people used to call me for listings, but that’s now all over the internet. However, I still get called because I have market insight.” So amid the holiday season, Q4 closings, and the thinkpieces like this one populating the end-of-year taking stock of AI in legal, let’s remember that in our business, we’re better suited for lawyers and AI to not face off, but to be on the same team.

© 2018 Peter Colin, Jr.