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The next big thing

Posted by Neil Rose, Editor, Legal Futures

[1]In 17 years as a legal journalist, I have attended a lot of conferences. An awful lot of conferences. And a lot of awful conferences, come to that.

So last Friday’s LawTech Camp London was something a bit different – I cannot remember the last time there was such palpable excitement in the air at an event, generated by the sense that technology will introduce genuinely revolutionary change into the delivery of legal services. Some of the speakers raised our eyes to what is on the horizon. Many in the audience were ready to embrace it.

They do, of course, represent the minority in a profession that Professor Richard Susskind told them is full of “irrational rejectionists” – people who dogmatically dismiss technology without even trying it. I’m no Luddite but technology remains a cause of wonder to me – to that extent I still haven’t got over the fax machine. But the LawTech Camp has made me think harder about technology and the law.

As Professor Susskind pithily put it: “If we can see the day when the average desktop computer has more processing power than all of humanity put together, it might be time for lawyers to rethink the way they draft documents. It just cannot be that the Internet is transforming all corners of society and the economy, and yet it doesn’t apply to lawyers.”

The mood music of ABSs has already stimulated significant new activity in the last two years – QualitySolicitors, the Co-op, Riverview Law, Stobart Barristers et al – but when people like Professor Susskind talk about disruption, they envisage something far more radical, driven by technology; so much so that the legal profession as we know it today will be barely recognisable. The problem is that most of us just cannot imagine that far, let alone see it, but the LawTech Camp showed there are people out there who can.

Take dispute resolution as one example of where I agree that we are lacking in imagination. Professor Susskind likes to quote the fact that eBay resolves 60m disputes a year online, while other new online dispute resolution tools are coming on stream all the time. I recently came across online arbitration service Judge.me [2], a self-styled ‘small claims court for the Internet’, launched from Chile, to deal with cross-border disputes for a flat fee of $299.

At the same time, we have the Jackson reforms going live next April, which will fundamentally affect some lawyers’ practices (ie, how they make a living) but not the justice system as a whole. My major disappointment about Lord Justice Jackson’s review was that it did not question whether the underlying dispute resolution process continues to be the optimal approach for all disputes; not surprisingly, given the author, it started from the presumption that a court-based system remains the best way.

The talk that really caught my attention on Friday, though, was about ‘big data’, a new concept for me. This is the particular interest [3] of Daniel Katz [4], associate professor of law at Michigan State University, one of the brains behind the LawTech Camp. Big data refers to the huge volumes and varieties of data that are now available, and so can be analysed.

Professor Katz talks about this ushering in the era of “quantitative legal prediction” and it is an attractive theory. Much of the advice lawyers give comes from applying the facts of the matter before them to personal or acquired knowledge of similar situations – humans, he says, are “amazing pattern detectors”. But what if, instead of relying on that ‘database’ of maybe a few dozen or even few hundred cases, you could instead interrogate a massive, real database of historical legal data? Might that not provide a more accurate prediction of the right course to take and likely outcome?

According to Professor Katz, even 10 years ago a study showed that a statistical model relying on general case characteristics correctly predicted the outcome of US Supreme Court cases 75% of the time, compared to 59% for human legal specialists. Imagine what could be achieved now with the amount of information available digitally – a speaker from ThomsonReuters showed how it is turning court rulings into countless data points. In fact, it is already happening to some extent in the world of intellectual property, with US company LexMachina [5].

Perhaps the closest in the UK that I have seen, and it is some way from this, is RoadTrafficRepresentation [6], a website that through a series of questions produces an automated free diagnostic advice on possible outcomes and penalties if convicted of a motoring offence (and then sells various advice services if the user wants to take some action as a result, including immediate instruction of a barrister). As the website [7] says: “It replicates the process that a solicitor would ordinarily go through with you, but in much less time and without cost to you, all at a time of day or night that suits you.”

Renee Newman Knake [8], also an associate professor in law at Michigan and the other driving force behind the LawTech Camp, asked delegates if they wanted to be the Kodak or Instagram of legal services – two companies essentially offering the same end-product, but delivering it in very different ways and whose fortunes are even more different as a result.

It is a powerful point and a dizzying future (and I haven’t even begun to talk about artificial intelligence, which others did on Friday). It all reminds me of a joke that was doing the rounds in the late 1990s that the law firm of the future was made up of a lawyer, a dog and a computer – the computer to do the legal work, the dog to keep the lawyer away from the computer, and the lawyer to feed the dog.

Perhaps it’s not so much of a joke after all. If the believers last Friday are proved right, we haven’t seen anything yet.