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How to spot AI in life and in the law

At this point, conversations about artificial intelligence have gotten stale. Has it arrived? Is it coming? Will it take my job? For all the buzz surrounding the topic – not to mention the virtual ink spilled explaining it – many people still have trouble recognizing examples of AI and understanding its impact on the practice of law.

Robot vacuums and digital personal assistants are commonplace. Car shopping nowadays includes choosing from features like adaptive cruise control and lane assist. But are these capabilities actual artificial intelligence, or simply more sophisticated, modern versions of the same “if, then” statements computers have used all along?

Clarifying the fuzzy boundary between “smart” technology and AI is important. Confusion about AI limits our ability to place the technology in its proper context and understand how it might fit into our daily lives.

Think of the distinction this way: Smart devices use AI to provide minor convenience, but powerful applications of AI unlock the potential to do more than was previously possible.

What AI looks like in smart devices

Think back to the first time your phone told you it was time to leave for your next appointment. You were likely well-versed in creating events in your calendar app and an old hand at navigating to a location using web-based programs. But those two actions were disconnected. Getting to your next appointment on time was still largely up to you.

Contrast that with today’s “smarter” smartphones that “know” your next appointment is starting soon, scan for driving distance or traffic patterns, and notify you when it’s time to leave. There’s a distinction there beyond app connectivity. These devices anticipate our needs and use their judgment and decision-making capabilities to recommend a departure time. This happens behind the scenes, and it happens every day.

Artificial intelligence is how your phone knows your face, with glasses or not. It's how your car parallel parks itself better than you ever could. And it’s how a $50 smart speaker recognizes your voice, even among competing household noises.

It’s impressive, of course, but these capabilities rarely offer a one-for-one replacement of human behaviors. In truth, most people’s daily interactions with AI aren’t attempts to achieve the impossible. They’re just addressing something that is labor-intensive or traditionally ignored. Smart devices are less like the robots of science fiction, and more like a roommate who’s a stickler for your home energy bill – like you always knew you should be.

Recognizing AI in the legal workflow

Many of the same traits of consumer-grade AI are present in the legal workspace, but the difference is in the application and impact of the technology. Sometimes the change is small, like a faster way to do an old task. In other cases, AI unlocks the potential to see things that were previously hiding under mountains of data.

Years ago, the act of searching for online information included scouring the first page of search results before making your next move. Now, search bars anticipate your query and practically do the typing for you. Similarly, searches within Westlaw Edge are executed faster and with an increased focus on answers, not only results. Your needs are anticipated, and AI-driven decisions are being made. That’s just one example. In practice, the impact of legal AI extends far beyond search.

Artificial Intelligence has come to bear on the legal industry in many ways, with advanced offerings from many of the major solution providers. Divining which “AI” has actual value is critical to managing a law firm’s financial investments and ensuring its future success.

Look for mentions of AI that allude to decision-making, helpful judgment, or suggested actions. These are the types of applications where AI can help you exceed your current potential or gain an edge on your opponents.

Examples of legal AI include:

  • Legal research tools that analyze the decisions and behaviors of judges and other attorneys can be used to inform your strategies
  • Intelligence that leverages historical data and relationships can identify flaws or opportunities within your work
  • Document analysis tools that can process natural language and legalese alike enable you to work organically while trusting that there is a safety net beneath you

Understanding why AI matters

None of these behaviors are new to the act of practicing law. But the time and focus required for a human to execute these tasks have always been a limiting factor. Like taking good care of your home energy bill, AI enables good attorneys to become even better by doing things that they would not, or could not, do on their own.

The net result? How many would you like? Improvements to the speed, efficiency, and quality of a lawyer’s work are almost trite. Faster answers and better casework aren’t a hard sell for most law firms, but they’re something nearly every business will claim.

What many will fail to mention is that there’s a quality of life improvement to be considered as well. That smart thermostat might lower your energy bill, but it might also make your house a bit more comfortable with less effort on your part.

Similarly, a faster path to work you can stand behind sounds great on its own. But it might also bring more chances to get out of the office on time or set off to court with a clear head.

Artificial intelligence isn’t a cure-all, nor is its presence always self-evident. But as the technology becomes more prevalent, attorneys who value their time and their performance must learn to see it for what it is and make use of it where they can.

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