Commentary: Lawyers may have to grapple with big data soon

Commentary: Lawyers may have to grapple with big data soon

Human judgment will remain a crucial ingredient but legal practice will likely be augmented by artificial intelligence in the future, say two observers.

business person walking with satchel
(Photo: Unsplash/Marten Bjork)

GEORGIA: Artificial intelligence is transforming the traditional delivery of legal services.

In general terms, the set of tools broadly called “legal analytics” promises to do two things: Increase the efficiency of tasks that once required substantial time and human effort, and mine masses of data to discover new insights that were previously inaccessible.


Suppose that a company wants to forecast which employee complaints lead to lawsuits. 

Historically, the company might assign a team of analysts and lawyers to comb through complaint records, personnel files and court documents, searching for some pattern that might signal litigation risk. This painstaking process could take months and require an army of people to process thousands of pages of text.

Treating this task instead as a data science problem dramatically improves speed and efficiency. 

An algorithm could extract key text in bulk and assemble it for analysis. Human time and attention would then be trained only on the relevant information. The labour-intensive search process would be eliminated.

The new generation of analytics tools can do more than simply reduce labour hours. 

Techniques like machine learning – a type of artificial intelligence where computers can recursively learn from a set of examples without being explicitly programmed to do so – can enable the discovery of new patterns that are beyond the reach of manual analysis. 

time wrist watch appointment
The new generation of analytics tools can reduce labour hours, and enable the discovery of new patterns that are beyond the reach of manual analysis (Photo: Unsplash/rawpixel)

For example, in the scenario above, an algorithm might be able to predict whether any given employee complaint will result in a lawsuit.

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Legal analytics has captured the imagination of lawyers and researchers alike. In a recent contest in the United Kingdom, 100 lawyers from top London firms were pitted against an artificial intelligence tool to predict the outcome of hundreds of simple financial disputes. 

The robot won by a wide margin, predicting 86.6 per cent of cases correctly, while the humans correctly predicted only 66.3 per cent. 

The tool was “learning” something about the disputes that the humans were missing, beating lawyers at their own prediction game.

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Of course, not all legal problems neatly reduce to a set of variables, and human behaviour does not always follow detectable patterns. 

Predictive tools work less well when the relevant data-set is small, or when the text that is subject to analysis is so varied and idiosyncratic that patterns are difficult to detect.

Progress can also bring peril. Historical data about past events often contain bias and inaccuracies, meaning that even the most sophisticated computer code, when fed garbage, can produce only garbage in return. 

Bail-setting algorithms, for example, have been criticised for perpetuating racial bias in criminal justice.

If lawyers delegate too much of our decisions to algorithms, then we are destined to repeat our historical patterns and mistakes. 

Launched in 2000, the humanoid machine resembling a shrunken spaceman has become arguably
Launched in 2000, the humanoid machine resembling a shrunken spaceman has become arguably Japan's most famous robot. (Photo: AFP/Yoshikazu Tsuno)

For instance, litigation prediction algorithms trained on cases from retired judges or outdated case law may miss new developments and recommend an unnecessarily conservative course of action.

In the end, a robot lawyer is a poor substitute for a human lawyer. Human judgment will remain a crucial ingredient in law practice. What will change is when it’s used to augment intelligence gleaned from other systems.


If the practice of law changes, then that means parts of legal education must change, too.

Some future lawyers will graduate as computer programmers, able to write the code that underlies legal analytics tools. 

Others will become knowledgeable consumers of the results produced by these tools, able to critically assess the output. 

We believe that all law schools should wrestle with how to educate today’s students for a future practice. However transformative, in the end, legal analytics is a tool. 

Tomorrow’s lawyers should be prepared to exploit its advantages, while also understanding where those advantages end and human judgment begins.

Anne Tucker and Charlotte Alexander are both associate professor of law at Georgia State University. A version of this commentary first appeared on The Conversation.

Source: CNA/nr