Artificial Intelligence (AI) is a broad term, used to describe how computers can mimic certain operations of the human mind. Upon hearing the term, many people had vaguely pictured sci-fi inspired images of machine-ruled futures and humanoid robots. As Google DeepMind’s AlphaGo program triumphed against South Korean Go grandmaster Lee Sedol in 2016, however, the neutral networks and machine learning techniques of AI were brought into public attention. A “neural network” is a computer that classifies information, categorizing things based on their characteristics. “Machine learning” is an application of AI in which computers use algorithms embodied in software to learn from data and adapt with experience, enabling the training of AI programs, whether by themselves through trial and error or by humans feeding them with data. Deep neural networks, inspired by biological neural networks, have revolutionized machine learning to the point where it enables computer systems to improve their performance by exposure to data without the need to follow explicitly programmed instructions.

Such advancements in AI technology are expected to bring about dramatic transformations across society. For the last few years, AI has entered the consciousness of basically every industry, and has become part of mainstream conversations in businesses of all shapes and sizes. Indeed, AI has already brought about important transitions in the automotive industry, for example, as huge corporations such as Hyundai Motors invest in adopting AI in car manufacturing and forerunners such as Google and Tesla lead the automakers in the development of self-driving vehicles. Such transitions in automobile industry will, in turn, induce spillover impact in labor markets and the insurance industry. AI is also increasingly permeating our daily lives, as more and more people choose to make use of the technology. The market for smart speakers, for instance, is booming, growing 187 percent worldwide in the second quarter of 2018.

The legal industry is in no way immune to the impacts of the AI innovation. Although interests in applying AI in law is transforming the profession as a whole rather slowly, a broad ranges of technology for applications across the legal field already exist.  Some of the most promising techniques are those used in due diligence, including uncovering background information, conducting legal research, reviewing contracts, and engaging in e-discovery, a thorough process of identifying, collecting, reviewing and producing electronically stored information.  Evidence shows that e-discovery technology has reduced the significant amount of time previously spent by junior associates in discovery by seventy-five percent. In legal research field, quite a few startups are attempting to address problems incurred by current practice of keyword searches. Every lawsuit and court case requires diligent legal research, and lawyers and law students make use of sources such as WestLaw or LexisNexis by implementing creative keyword searches. However, a common problem of the practice is that the searches usually yield mass amounts of references that must be combed through to determine their relevance to the issue at hand, frequently overwhelming those who have limited time doing research. Startups such as ROSS Intelligence tries to replace the current practice with semantic searches, through which lawyers can take advantage of AI technology by using natural language queries instead of keywords.  AI software companies such as TrademarkNow also attempt to dramatically shorten the time used on trademark and patent search which traditionally involves looking into hundreds or sometimes thousands of results through manual research. In addition, there are AI software programs that can generate loan agreements, contracts, and even briefs and memos, although AI seems not to be very good at engaging in more creative types of writing yet.

The Industry is responding. JP Morgan, for example, used an AI computer program called COIN (Contract Intelligence) to replace 360,000 billable hours of attorney work in interpreting commercial loan agreements, with fewer errors than lawyers at considerably lower cost. Big law firms are also quickly finding ways to incorporate AI innovations into their practice. Baker Hostetler, for example, employed ROSS in its bankruptcy department, 100 years after the law firm’s founding. Seyfarth Shaw announced in February 2017 that it would be the first major law firm to use AI to facilitate transfer of information. A 2017 survey indicates that over 90 percent of managing partners of U.S. law firms with more than 1000 attorneys are either currently using or actively exploring use of AI systems in their legal practices.

The advent of AI might be perceived as a threat to lawyers by dramatically cutting back billable hours in the future since that would certainly not make the job search any easier in a profession where it is already difficult to secure a job. On the other hand, some value it as an enhancing factor of legal practice, enabling lawyers to focus on more creative and cognitively complex parts of the field, leaving the technology to process tedious areas. Indeed, a majority of the sources addressing the AI applications in the legal field agree that AI technology would not replace most lawyer’s jobs, although their projections are followed by modifiers such as “yet” or “in the short term.” Considering the fact that AI systems are increasingly adopted by major law firms, and that the technologies purportedly improve with increased use, no one can accurately foresee how huge AI’s impact may be in the long term. What is clear, though, is that given its efficiency and great potential to provide cost-effective legal services, AI will necessitate that lawyers better understand and incorporate the technology into their profession, to address competition in the foreseeable future, or rather, now.

Kenneth Kim is a J.D. candidate, 2020, at NYU School of Law.