AI can spur real change in the legal sector

Professor Katie Atkinson is the Dean of the School of Electrical Engineering, Electronics and Computer Science at the University of Liverpool.

Automated technologies can streamline administration, cut costs and drive efficiencies.

From technology giants to innovative start-ups, AI and automation are disrupting the way we live, work and even think, across a range of sectors. And the legal profession is no exception. To remain competitive, law firms must view technology and an increasingly digitised world as an opportunity, rather than a challenge.

The coronavirus pandemic has undoubtedly catalysed the fourth industrial revolution. As courts moved online and office-based law professionals worked remotely, the legal sector began to accelerate the power of this digital disruption.

Traditionally, legal professionals process vast quantities of lengthy official documents in order to conduct everyday legal work, taking up a lot of their time and consequently forming a large proportion of the costs associated with a legal case. But what if AI rather than a human could process these documents instead and, further, advise on decisions in legal cases based on previous precedents? Automation is not about the full replacement of jobs with technology but it will shift the focus of roles within the legal sector.

Research in AI and law
At the University of Liverpool, we have been producing innovative research in the field of AI and law since the 1980s. Over the past decade we have developed innovative ways to extract and reason with relevant pieces of knowledge and data contained within complex legal documents, cases and laws. Our researchers build this legal knowledge into a “computational model of argument” to develop decision-support tools that can enable more consistent and faster decision making than manual human processing delivers.

These modelling tools have been demonstrated to be highly accurate in replicating the actual outcomes of closed court cases in a variety of well-studied areas, reaching a 100 per cent success rate in certain scoped legal fields. Thus, the AI tools that we have developed at Liverpool provide decision support that can advise on outcomes while displaying the arguments and justification process, assisting legal professionals to take informed actions.

We have also applied our work in industrial settings. A tool we developed in collaboration with a partner from the legal industry applies AI techniques such as natural language processing, data mining and machine learning to provide a fast, flexible and scalable system for extracting information from legal documents related to commercial law.

The ANGELIC methodology is the framework developed by Liverpool academics that enables AI programs to be designed to capture knowledge about a body of case law and advise legal professionals on the acceptable arguments in a case. This methodology can even assist in flagging inconsistencies between new and precedent cases, and accommodate changes in the law within the computer model as law-makers evolve the law. The methodology has been applied to real world domains in collaboration with an industrial partner from the legal sector.

Developing explainable AI
Currently, there is a lot of interest in AI from across the UK’s legal sector and we are already seeing established technologies being successfully applied to the law. One strand of research that we undertake at Liverpool is specifically focused on “explainable AI”, meaning that the legal judgements our technologies make can be understood by humans. This is a very important ethical issue that we must address head on in order to foster trust and confidence in the use of AI from legal professionals, their clients and the public. Rather than our AI systems being seen as a black box, in which data inputs are converted into a verdict without any transparency, we need to remain accountable by being able to explain how our decision was reached, and why other options were rejected.

Our models of legal decision making use computational models of argument and hence they are able to explain their decisions akin to how a lawyer does. Humans use argumentation to debate and discuss what to believe and what to do, so we are building formal models that can be turned into computer programs for automated argumentation. These programs can take a set of arguments about a legal case and determine which are the acceptable ones and why, accounting for precedent cases, as is done in the common law system used in the UK.

Deploying AI technologies
To transfer our research into practice, we’ve collaborated with a number of law firms to deploy our AI technologies in their business operations. Working with top UK law firm Weightmans and tech company Kira Systems, we have developed an AI solution that is able to extract data to power a decision engine capable of carrying out legal reasoning. The solution can identify arguments for settling cases and speeds up decisions to deliver case handling improvements for Weightmans and its clients.

Through a Knowledge Transfer Partnership funded by Innovate UK, we’ve been working with another personal injury claimant law firm to develop support tools for their specialist area of law using our AI research. This has allowed the law firm to embed a culture of innovation through further investments, generating significant benefits in terms of both efficiency and accuracy of case processing, thus boosting their profitability.

AI technology development takes time and resources but the positive impact on efficiency, accuracy and reduced case processing time has been found by our partners to significantly outweigh the initial expenses. We aim to help the firms make faster, more consistent decisions with the support of transparent AI tools, and ultimately deliver swifter justice for their clients. In addition, time savings enable earlier risk mitigation that can lead to better outcomes for businesses and customers.

The future of legal work
The widespread adoption of AI technology is set to transform the legal sector and disrupt the future of legal work. Through the use of automation, repetitive legal tasks will be carried out by AI technologies with increased speed and accuracy, allowing paralegals and lawyers to focus on cognitively challenging tasks. As a result, some job profiles within the legal sector are likely to shift away from traditional skill sets, as law firms look to recruit in-house data scientists and innovation managers to help them horizon scan and drive technological R&D within a competitive market.

Driving UK competitive advantage
The UK’s legal services sector is a key segment of our economy. According to the Law Society, the legal sector added more than £60bn GVA to our economy in 2018 and employed over 350,000 people. In the uncertain economic era that we are finding ourselves in, it is vital that the UK legal sector remains globally competitive. To sustain their competitive advantage, UK lawyers are increasingly embracing productivity-enhancing legal technology, such as the innovative AI technologies that we’ve been developing at Liverpool.

This article first appeared in the New Statesman Spotlight report on “the future of work: AI and automation” in September 2020. You can read the original article here.