Michael Payne, Cohen Seglias Pallas Greenhall & Furman Michael Payne, Cohen Seglias Pallas Greenhall & Furman

In the book “We Are Not Alone,” published in 1964 and written by Walter Sullivan, the author included a chapter that asked “Is There Intelligent Life on Earth?” While that question could generate a lively debate, there can be no doubt that humans are in the process of developing artificial intelligence on earth. The term “artificial intelligence” was first coined by computer scientist John McCarthy in 1956 and is defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as a “branch of computer science dealing with the simulation of intelligent behavior in computers.” Popularly referred to as AI, there is no doubt that artificial intelligence will be a disruptive factor in the legal profession in the coming years.

Among the many people making that prediction, Richard Susskind put it best in “Tomorrow’s Lawyers” by observing that “we are at the beginning of a period of fundamental transformation in law: A time in which we will see greater change than we have seen in the past two centuries. Where the future of the legal service will be a world of internet-based global businesses, online document production, commoditized service, legal process outsourcing and web-based simulation practice. Legal markets will be liberalized, with new jobs for lawyers and new employers, too.” This transformation will be fueled by the implementation of artificial intelligence.

Skeptics, of course, will doubt that AI will have a dramatic effect on the legal profession. These are the same people who resisted the conversion from electric typewriters to word processors, and who failed to believe that law books and law libraries would be replaced by electronic legal research. The pace of change is accelerating, however, and the noted futurist and a director of engineering at Google focusing on machine learning, Ray Kurzweil, predicts that computers will have human-level intelligence by 2029 and that a “singularity” will occur by 2045 when machines will become smarter than human beings.

There are a number of activities in the legal profession that currently benefit from AI, including automated document assembly, search algorithms that drive legal research databases, voice recognition and e-discovery software. Predictive coding, which is basically a search algorithm that learns how to rank the relevance of documents, continues to improve and reduces the time it takes to search huge electronic databases. At J.P. Morgan Chase, an AI-powered program called COIN has been used since June 2017 to interpret commercial loan agreements. Work that previously took thousands of hours can now be done in seconds. The drafting of contracts can be accomplished more efficiently when variable clauses are selected and properly included, and missing clauses are caught before it is too late. Analytics, not the exclusive domain of professional sports teams, are now found in programs developed for the purpose of gaining more data about prospective jurors, such as detailed social media profiles, that give attorneys more of a sense of how particular jurors may act if selected.

There are many companies that are developing applications for artificial intelligence. The most notable of these is IBM, which has developed the supercomputer known as “Watson,” named for IBM’s founder, Thomas J. Watson. In reality, Watson (a winner on the television show “Jeopardy”) combines artificial intelligence and sophisticated analytical software for optimal performance as a “question-answering” machine. It is a cognitive system that learns over time and, based on its knowledge of a number of factors in similar matters, is expected to be able to make predictions about the outcome of a case. It has already been very successfully applied to medical diagnostics.

One of the most progressive and exciting uses of Watson in the practice of law has been undertaken by Ross Intelligence. As reported in the Lawyerist, Ross Intelligence is an online legal research tool that harnesses the power of artificial intelligence to make legal research more insightful. It offers a platform optimized for natural language searches, which tends to provide search results that better address the lawyer’s intent and the context of the query, leading to more efficient legal research. A free offering of Ross Intelligence, known as EVA, analyzes briefs, checks sites and finds similar cases. EVA will also check the subsequent history of a case to make sure that it is still good law. There are similar products, as well, like Casetext’s CARA, which was selected as the product of the year in 2017 by the American Association of Law Libraries. A review of the websites of these companies will provide a great deal of information about the expanding capabilities of their products.

Although large law firms and in-house corporate counsel are learning about AI products, most attorneys are unaware of what is happening. An American Bar Association survey found that only 10% of respondents reported that they used artificial intelligence-based technology tools. The number increased to 26% when the respondents included only attorneys from law firms with more than 100 attorneys. As the tools improve, and attorneys learn about them, these percentages will increase. Those who fail or refuse to adapt will find themselves at a serious competitive disadvantage in the years ahead.

For those who are interested, it is worth looking into companies like LawGeex (contract review automation), Lex Machina (legal analytics), and Ravel (a suite of tools and services designed to help professionals analyze, visualize and understand the law). These products are not designed to replace lawyers, but they are intended to reduce research and organization time so that the attorney can focus on case analysis and development of case strategy. Computers are not yet capable of dealing with multiple parties and developing creative arguments, but that will undoubtedly change in the future. Who knows, the role of the attorney may be completely replaced by a computer one day.

Michael H. Payne is chair of the government contracting group at Cohen Seglias Pallas Greenhall & Furman. Contact him at mhpayne@cohenseglias.com.