The Knowledge Management discipline has been undergoing a renewed interest in law firms driven in part by clients’ demand for increased efficiencies from their outside counsel. With this renewed interest in knowledge management, practitioners are focusing their efforts on initiatives that promise to deliver value to firm clients.
While knowledge management teams continue to work on what traditionally has been considered to be the KM space, including universal search, internal intranet portals and collaboration hubs (extranets), etc., these teams are now expected to explore, understand and make sense of artificial intelligence.
AI is perhaps the most talked about initiative with a potential to shape the law firms of the future and one which could be a critical part of delivering first class service to clients.
What is AI?
According to Wikipedia, AI is intelligence exhibited by machines. The level of intelligence exhibited in the various software applications that leverage some form of AI differs from one application to another. In legal, AI can mean many different things including machine learning and expert systems. As we continue to explore the potential of AI in our knowledge management world, we need to differentiate not only hype from reality but also practical from unrealistic.
Making sense of AI
Let’s begin with the question of where AI should be managed in Law Firms. Knowledge Management is known as the department that inherits initiatives that don’t fit traditional departments such as IT or Marketing. AI is one of those initiatives that is hard to pin on any one department or group, perhaps due to the difficulty in defining what AI means. But in the case of AI, it makes sense for it to live in the KM world given that our mission is to increase efficiencies and deliver value.
User adoption has always been problematic but the usability and friendliness of newer systems make this less of an issue.
It’s easy to get lost in the mountain of articles about AI and then confused by the many assertions about how it will disrupt the legal industry as we know it and how this disruption will replace many lawyers. We all need to take a step back and examine the realities of what AI can offer our firms today and then continue to monitor its progress around how it can enhance exiting processes going forward.
There is a lot of good information on AI, information is not the challenge, understanding AI’s potential as applied to a lawyer’s workday is where we will need to focus. Hence, once KM has embarked on this initiative, one of the first challenges they must tackle is to define what AI means at their firm and then reach a consensus about how the firm wants to undertake such initiative.
In spite of the hyperbole, from a practical standpoint, AI is still in its early stages at most law firms. We can say that we are slowly adopting certain AI capabilities some of which have been around for some time. For example, document automation which has been used at firms for years is morphing into more intelligent systems such as decision-tree solutions. Decision-tree technology can be used to build one-off solutions specific to a client’s need or even build productized solutions which can be marketed to multiple clients in a specific vertical. Some firms believe this is a form of AI and others disagree. Either way, building solutions that bring value to client work with exponential efficiencies is a good thing. You could even say intelligent.
Once you understand the capabilities of AI and how those capabilities can be leveraged in a practical way by the practice groups you support, the challenge will be in user adoption. User adoption has always been problematic but the usability and friendliness of newer systems make this less of an issue. The new challenge we may be dealing with is getting our users to understand and accept AI solutions. We must help our lawyers understand the concept of AI systems and assure them that AI is not meant to replace them but to help them with faster turnaround and higher quality deliverables.
As knowledge managers, we should also keep an open mind and not compartmentalize this technology to only certain practice areas such as transactional. Interview your lawyers, ask a lot of questions, they may help you identify AI technology that can complement their particular work, including litigation.
Technology tools leveraging AI are being developed at a fast pace. Not all new AI products will survive the test of time, but even those who fail are leading the way for what’s to come. And yes, there is much hype around AI, but the exponential increase in storage and computation coming from massive cloud technologies is accelerating this change. We should heed Bill Gates when he said: “We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten. Don't let yourself be lulled into in action”.
For now, when I’m asked when AI is going to replace lawyers, my answer will continue to be “it depends”. I think everyone understands that AI or intelligent ‘bots’ will not replace all lawyers in the near future or even for several years, however, as replacements go, AI technologies such as machine learning and decision tree systems will soon begin to reduce the number of lawyers needed to complete all or part of some transactions such as regulatory compliance advice, risk management and contract review and management for example.
What will those displaced lawyers do? As a knowledge manager, I for one welcome the opportunity to explore ideas together with our junior and staff lawyers who used to focus on tasks now handled by AI. Together we can leverage their expertise and begin to build systems that directly address our clients’ unique needs using AI.
So let’s explore the world of opportunities being presented to us by AI in a measured and practical way and adopt its capabilities as needed, when needed.