Anyone following artificial intelligence in law knows that its first great cost saving has been in the area of document discovery. Machines can sort through duplicates so that associates don’t have to read the same document seven times, and they can string together thousands of emails to put together a quick-to-read series of a dozen email chains. More sophisticated programs evolve their ability with the help of human input.
Law firms are already saving their clients millions in adopting the technology. It’s bad news for the lawyers who used to earn their livings doing extremely boring document review, but good for everyone else. As in the grocery, book, taxi and hotel businesses, the march of technology is inevitable.
Other advances in law have come with search engines such as Lexmachina, which searches through a small number of databases to predict the outcome of patent cases. Other AI products that have scanned all U.S. Supreme Court decisions do a better job than people in predicting how the court will decide a particular case, based on briefs submitted in a live matter and the judges deciding the case.
When we think about our work gathering facts, we know that most searching is done not in a closed, limited environment. We don’t look through a “mere” four million documents as in a complex discovery or the trivial (for a computer) collection of U.S. Supreme Court cases. Our work is done when the entire world is the possible location of the search.
A person who seldom leaves New York may have a Nevada company with assets in Texas, Bermuda or Russia.
Until all court records in the U.S. are scanned and subject to optical character recognition, artificial intelligence won’t be able to do our job for us in looking over litigation that pertains to a person we are examining.
That day will surely come for U.S records, and may be here in 10 years, but it is not here yet. For the rest of the world, the wait will be longer.
Make no mistake: computers are essential to our business. Still, one set of databases including Westlaw and Lexis Nexis that we often use to begin a case are not as easy to use as Lexmachina or other closed systems, because they rely on abstracts of documents as opposed to the documents themselves.
They are frequently wrong about individual information, mix up different individuals with the same name, and often have outdated material. My profile on one of them, for instance, includes my company but a home phone number I haven’t used in eight years. My current home number is absent. Other databases get my phone number right, but not my company.
Wouldn’t it be nice to have a “Kayak” type system that could compare a person’s profile on five or six paid databases, and then sort out the gold from the garbage?
It would, but it might not happen so soon, and not just because of the open-universe problem.
Even assuming these databases could look to all documents, two other problems arise:
- They are on incompatible platforms. Integrating them would be a programming problem.
- More importantly, they are paid products, whereas Kayak searches free travel and airline sites. In addition, they require licenses to use, and the amount of data you can get is regulated by one of several permissible uses the user must enter to gain access to the data. A system integration of the sites would mean the integrator would have to vet the user for each system and process payment if it’s a pay-per-use platform.
These are hardly insurmountable problems, but they do help illustrate why, with AI marching relentlessly toward the law firm, certain areas of practice will succumb to more automation faster than others.
What will be insurmountable for AI is this: you cannot ask computers to examine what is not written down, and much of the most interesting information about people resides not on paper but in their minds and the minds of those who know them.
The next installment of this series on AI will consider how AI could still work to help us toward the right people to interview.