I attended the workshop on AI and Legal Practice that took place at the International Conference on Artificial Intelligence and Law (ICAIL) 2017 last week together with my colleagues Sam Paul and Alan Larkin and Dr John Kingston of the University of Brighton. The conference attendees for the workshop comprised a roughly equal mix of lawyers, technology experts and academics and included presentations from a number of individuals about how they saw technology impacting the legal arena.

Despite the buzz and excitement surrounding the prospect of technology (positively) disrupting the legal space, there seemed to be a very real sense of frustration amongst a number of attendees as to how to actually develop these programs. And this is a very valid question.

To many law firms, employing a technical expert to develop this software on their own would be a daunting prospect indeed, if not impossible. To start with you have to find the right candidate and, to be blunt, as lawyers we are not the right people to be testing someone’s coding ability. Knowing how to operate Microsoft Word and Outlook does not mean that we are equipped to test who has the technical abilities to work in the cutting-edge areas of machine learning and big data analytics.

Then there is the financial outlay of meeting the salary requirements of a software engineer or team, then purchasing the hardware required, followed swiftly by the software that they will need. Also, it is unlikely (although admittedly not impossible) that one person will have all the knowledge necessary to develop the software and platform required.  Instead they will probably need access to further learning resources or individuals who can assist them.

So, the idea of employing someone is probably unattractive to most law firms.

What about hiring a tech company to complete a project for you? This way rather than employing an individual you have a team of people working on a defined, fully scoped piece of work. They will have all the kit that they need and with more resources to call on they are more likely to be able to develop what you need. This is quite probably true but, the reality is that the expense is also likely to increase to an extent that it becomes prohibitive to most firms.

To me at least, it appears that there are many barriers to actually developing these programs. There was a real desire by the attendees at the conference to push this area forward but (with the exception of very large firms) it appeared there were simply not the resources to be able to do it.

What does this mean for law firms and their clients? None of us has the benefit of a crystal ball, but my suspicion is that there will be a focus by the larger corporate firms on producing software purely for their own use across their client bases. It is unlikely that they will have an appetite to share that learning with other large legal outfits. I do not see there being much of a focus, at least for the time being, on the private client transactions such as family law work.

Up until last year, if the subject of Artificial Intelligence came up I would have been in the ‘that’s all very well BUT… camp’, myself. However, I am currently working in an innovative project at my firm which turns all the obstacles mentioned above on their heads.

Family Law Partners is working in partnership with the University of Brighton in a Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) supported by funding from the government’s innovation agency, Innovate UK. The project is utilising the University’s knowledge engineering and artificial intelligence expertise to develop a triage style system to deliver a cutting-edge model of family law provision.

As part of the two-year project, we have a programmer (Sam) who is embedded in our family law team but also has support from the University to help him drive the project forward. By partnering with the University, we are able to have the benefit of the extensive knowledge and experience that they are able to offer in this area.  By being based in our office and immersed in our family law culture we are able to have daily conversations with Sam about the project, the direction it is going and what information and resources he needs to move it forwards.  Sam sees first-hand the challenges we have as family lawyers and the desire we have to better service our clients’ needs through new technology. Regular check-ins with the academic supervisors and KTP support team help keep the project on track and ensure we’re making the most of our investment.

We are currently four months into the project’s first year and the progress we’re making is extremely exciting. The knowledge and skills being developed will we hope fashion a suite of tools which will change the face of family law. It has, and continues to be, an enormous amount of work and dedication to launch and sustain a project of this kind. But perhaps the answer is, as is often the case, there are opportunities out there to bring impossible ideas to life – you just have to look for them.

If you are interested in finding out more about the KTP scheme then go to  the University website, or by contacting the KTP team to find out about funding for knowledge exchange projects with the University.

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