By Brandon Loehle, Project Leader and Outreach Officer
When we talk about the rise of technology, people like to think of the Terminator patrolling our community or self-driving cars parading the roads. Believe it or not, lawyers tend to agonize at the thought of a robot becoming sophisticated enough to take their job.
It’s easy to get caught up in the disruptive potential technology has, but much of the pessimism surrounding technological innovation in the legal industry is unfounded.
The Legal Tech Landscape
Right now, we don’t really know what the future will hold for legal tech, but we can confidently say that the use of technology in law is only going to increase. Many companies, law firms, and non-profit organizations are trying to break into the legal tech field, establishing themselves as leaders and inventors. The Queen’s University Conflict Analytics Lab (CAL) is one such organization which is attempting to build a foundation for the construction and integration of legal tech.
The first two products, or “tools”, that CAL is launching are in the employment law sphere. The first answers the question of whether someone is an employee or an independent contractor. The second calculates reasonable notice periods for employees who were let go from their jobs. Both of these tools ask users a set of multiple-choice questions and generates an answer based on the selected responses.
The tools built by CAL are meant to be open-source, which means they are FREE for anyone to use. For an additional fee, lawyers can access premium versions of these tools which provide extra services such as client intake and AI case law research.
While CAL focuses on predictive technology, innovation is also happening in the paperwork side of the law. Law Depot provides services including document organization for lawyers and standard form contract/letter drafting. BlueJ Legal has created their own predictive tools that are used by lawyers.
Today, there is no known legal tech that actually acts like a lawyer or works to replace a lawyer. Legal tech is complicated to build but currently can only provide simple services. There is no doubt that the capabilities of legal tech will stretch as time wears on, but it is still in its infancy.
The Limits of Legal Tech
The legal tech stage that we find ourselves in right now is probably surprisingly pedestrian to most outsiders.
The cutting-edge technology that CAL is creating has its limitations. Future cases can only be predicted if there is sufficient data on past cases. This means CAL is limited to creating predictive technology only in areas that are well-established in the law. Novel areas of law aren’t suitable for prediction.
Legal technology is also limited in its ability to provide actual legal advice. Lawyers go to school for years and then practice under the supervision of other experienced lawyers before they can give advice to clients. Legal advice is therefore tailored to each specific client that a lawyer sees. The purpose of legal tech is to categorize cases into manageable chunks and give black and white answers whether it is creating demand letters or predicting a legal decision. Our common law system, however, does not often do well with black and white answers.
Right now, it seems the best thing legal tech can provide is legal information to a user based on their case, or a standard form contract/letter with specific details provided by the user. For actual legal advice, people still need to seek the services of a lawyer.
Integrating Legal Tech
So, we know that legal tech has its limitations and that legal professionals are hesitant to welcome it into their field. But with all the buzz surrounding legal tech, there has to be upsides, right? Of course there is.
Once upon a time there were lawyers who hunched over casebooks and rifled through thousands of loose pages on their cardboard-box-filled desks. I know this rare breed does still exists, but they are slowly dying off. The end of these days began with online research systems such as Westlaw and Lexis. No longer are the days of paper cuts and ink stains. Today, lawyers search through thousands of cases with just a few keywords, and I think most lawyers would tell you that they would not be willing to return to the past ways of research.
Law firms, like all other businesses, must keep up with the increasingly competitive economic landscape which requires they remain competitive in their service offerings and pricing. And it’s no secret that those lower costs are not going to be coming out of the lawyer’s pocket. Enter legal tech.
Research systems like Westlaw and Lexis, document management systems, and new predictive technology such as the tools developed by CAL are making the lawyer’s job more manageable. Rather than spending hours sifting through casebooks, then more hours reading those cases, lawyers have been able to enter a few keywords and get a buffet of relevant information on any research system.
Our lab is taking it a step further, allowing lawyers to enter a few details about the client and be given a more precise set of cases based on the specific issue they have – leaving the lawyer to spend less time researching keywords and more time for new clients and billable hours.
This isn’t just great news for lawyers though. Decreasing the cost of legal services means more time to help more people. Smaller legal disputes such as breach of contract or severance pay issues (things that don’t go to court because the fees cost more than the settlements are worth) might all of a sudden become something that a lawyer can take on without running up a costly bill for the client. This creates a new market for lawyers to tap into.
People that still can’t afford a lawyer can take advantage of legal tech that provides them with more in-depth legal information. The tools developed by CAL can help self-represented litigants get specific information that is pertinent to their cases.
Legal Tech is Part of the Future, but it’s not “Taking Over”
While it seems that legal tech is lightyears away from taking over the legal field completely, it’s not a far stretch to say that it will be a crucial part of legal practice in the next few years.
Instead of resisting the changes that legal tech will bring, both for lawyers and clients, we should embrace the benefits that are forthcoming – cheaper legal services, helping more clients, faster research, better organization, more precise legal advice, and pretty much any other aid we can conjure up in the future. The options are endless, and the future is bright.