Not everything about practicing the law emulates cop procedurals on TV. In fact, according to JPMorgan, some legal tasks require teams of experts and up to 360,000 billable hours of tedious labor. After all, before oral arguments are even made, there’s years and sometimes decades of legal texts and precedents to sort through to determine the viability of a case and the next actions to take.
Machine learning is streamlining a lot of this work. Provided all relevant texts are available in digital format, or can be scanned and made available, algorithms can seek and find relevant phrases and keywords throughout even decades’ worth of texts in just a short time. With some additional development, these artificially intelligent platforms could carry a huge amount of the research burden for legal professionals. That frees them to use their talents, including analytical and rhetorical skills, on interpreting and building a case from the relevant findings turned up by the AI.
The consumer-level applications of server and cloud technologies are practically unimpressive compared with the changes they’re bringing to law and other major industries. Companies everywhere are enjoying vastly more agility and mobility when it comes to their resources, contracts, data, documents and everything else the modern law firm relies on.
Cloud technologies, in particular, have greatly reduced the time required to exchange documents with clients or with legal professionals in satellite offices or in the field. For example, lawyers, real estate agents and others who have to manage privacy regulations and good document hygiene have benefited from the advancement of standards that make digital signatures legally binding. In many cases, this means less traveling for both clients and lawyers.
For everything else, such as times when nothing but a face-to-face meeting will do, legal professionals are becoming more mobile than ever — and just in time, too, for a more global and more legally connected world and economy. Lawyers can practice where they will and travel as needed, knowing all their legal briefs, contracts, and other documents and information can follow them anywhere, without the worry of loss or theft.
No corner of the internet portrays both the opportunities and the perils of a connected world more clearly than social media. Social websites obviously represent a huge opportunity for law firms to recruit talent from new places and seek new — and new types — of business. The implications of social media’s popularity reach far beyond recruiting and marketing, however.
As we’ve seen with any number of recent high-profile legal cases, there are times when social media accounts can help break cases open or shed additional light on an event after the fact. Using social networks to discredit witnesses and unearth new evidence is, of course, its own legal can of worms. However, social media has already demonstrated a tendency to help us find a new balance when it comes to practicing free speech in public, semi-public and digital venues.
Social media has also helped shape and sharpen some of the oldest legal doctrines concerning free speech, as we apply them to new creative and communication mediums. Almost every type of free speech is legal in the U.S. — but one kind that is not, as recent events have forced us to revisit, is free speech that seeks to incite violence or unrest. It’s also forcing us to confront, defend ourselves against and ultimately render unnecessary the kind of manipulation of public sentiment and publicly available content — including social engineering and the dissemination of fake news — that defaced recent U.S. and U.K. elections and referendums.
Modern human society is currently living through several eventualities previously only seen in science fiction. The human genome is revealing itself to us piece by piece, and there are rumblings of patenting genes. GMOs are a moral and legal quagmire, even though this, too, ultimately boils down to patents and ownership — this time ownership over entire patentable organisms.
There are matters of privacy, too, as well as the legal ramifications — most of them pro-social rather than pro-business — of classifying the internet as a public utility. We even have to contend with the slippery idea of digital personhood and at what point an artificially intelligent, humanlike machine must receive human rights.
The idea isn’t to scare you — it’s to reveal just how far-reaching and dynamic the law is becoming. In this respect, the march of technology is practically forcing the legal industry to innovate in its own right and stay relentlessly modern as all these changes come about. It might mean additional or more specialized schooling. Some of tomorrow’s lawyers might even graduate with dual majors, in the law as well as in AI programming.
Technology facilitates the gathering of more, and more compelling, material evidence. It helps both large and small legal firms expand their reach and their practices. It can take an increasingly large share of the research burden off legal professionals, leading to a more complete sense of context on which a lawyer can build their case.
From law school classrooms to client meetings and courtrooms, technology is here to stay. The result, if we do things well, should be a more open and agile law industry for everybody involved.
By Nathan Sykes
Nathan Sykes is the founder of Finding an Outlet, where he covers business and technology.