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The meaning of artificial intelligence for legal researchers

Many legal professionals currently use artificial intelligence (AI) in their work, although they may not always realize it. Even among the most tech-savvy attorneys, questions remain as to what AI means for the legal profession today – and in the future.

Three of the most common questions include:

  • What is the definition of AI and how does it differ from other types of technology?
  • How will advances in AI change the way legal professionals work in the future?

And, perhaps most importantly:

  • How do you know when AI technology can be trusted in the legal space?

In this post, Thomson Reuters Westlaw shares answers to these questions based on the perspectives of our experienced attorney-editors and technology experts.

What does artificial intelligence really mean?

Is AI just a meaningless marketing buzzword? Robots trying to take over the world? Different people in a variety of industries have different concepts of what AI is and what it does. Therefore, any useful discussion of AI has to begin with a common understanding of the term.

AI is sometimes defined as the simulation of human thought processes in a computerized model. For Westlaw developers, that means teaching computers to mimic human behavior and thoughts in order to find the most relevant and accurate results, saving legal professionals time without sacrificing confidence.

One good example is the use of Natural Language search in Westlaw. Readers who have been using Westlaw technology since the early 1990s may recall a time when it was necessary to utilize Boolean Terms and Connectors in order to surface meaningful search results. But then Westlaw implemented Natural Language search capabilities allowing the computer to recognize the way humans naturally think and use language.

Introducing natural language technology in Westlaw meant that instead of humans having to think like machines, machines were taught to operate the way humans think. This made searching within Westlaw easier and faster for users.

Another way to define AI is “whatever a computer can’t do today.” When an idea for an AI innovation is new, or sounds impossible, then it is referred to as AI. But once it’s commonplace, it's considered to be just another piece of software – even when it continues to achieve the same simulation of human thought processes that it always did. Think about Natural Language search: It was a huge technological advance but today is built into most databases and search tools. Natural Language search isn't called "AI" anymore; it's simply expected.

What does the future hold for attorneys as AI advances?

A huge topic of analysis and debate across industries is whether, how, or when artificial intelligence may eliminate jobs and displace people. The legal industry is no different.

On one end of the spectrum are those who worry that their jobs may be in jeopardy in the near term because technology will replace them. In the legal world, however, the perspective on the opposite end of the spectrum may be more common:

The law presents unique challenges compared to other industries when programming computers to simulate human thought. In matters of the law, there is rarely a single mathematically/objectively correct answer to a particular question.

Lawyers exist because of nuance and disagreement. Fine points related to language (even punctuation) can mean the difference between a desired outcome and its opposite. The unpredictable human elements of the law – judges, clients, witnesses, juries – along with its constantly changing nature and the unique fact patterns of each individual case all combine to mean that legal work will remain a human business.

Jill Switzer points out two examples of much-needed, higher-thinking legal work that a computer can't accomplish – creative storytelling and reacting in real time to changing circumstances in a trial setting – in her post on the Above the Law blog, "Robots Will Never Be as Creative as Lawyers."

In order for skills like creativity and thinking on one’s feet to become obsolete in the legal world, we would first need to see either a major revolution in the way our legal systems operate, a massive leap forward in technological innovations, or both. Given all of that, attorneys are not likely to be replaced by computers anytime soon.

While technology can’t yet achieve all of what a lawyer must do, it can help free up legal professionals’ time and brainpower so more is available for creative thinking and strategy. There is a lot of opportunity to automate legal tasks that are repetitive and rote, like e-discovery and document review.

Legal research is another area where AI can augment the work of attorneys.

Westlaw has a long history of understanding what is most relevant to legal professionals when they are conducting legal research. That allows us to create AI enhancements like Research Recommendations and Folder Analysis.

One time-saver for Westlaw users is Research Recommendations, which uses your current legal research session to recommend additional cases, Key Numbers, and statutes related to the issue you’re searching.

Similarly, Folder Analysis analyzes cases you place in your folders to determine the common legal issues present. It will display a breakdown of those issues and also recommend additional cases based on the issues identified.

Working closely with experienced attorney-editors, the technical experts behind Westlaw design these enhancements based on data about customer needs, in-depth knowledge of the legal research process, and analysis of common legal questions and issues.

Westlaw enhancements aren’t designed to replace the work of attorneys as they synthesize and apply their research to each individual case. Rather, these AI-based enhancements speed your work and add confidence to your research process so you can spend your time and energy on other creative and intellectual tasks – tasks that only a human can do.

User feedback on Westlaw enhancements is overwhelmingly positive about its potential to make the research process faster. However, an understandable and frequent follow-on question from users remains: How do I know I can trust it?

How do I know I can trust AI technology for legal work?

By nature, attorneys are questioners, trained to consider every angle and potential outcome of every argument. You are thorough in your research and never satisfied that you’ve completed your work. How, then, can you know when to trust technological tools to aid you in your tasks? This especially applies when you don’t necessarily see what the algorithms and assumptions are that led the technology to produce a particular result or recommendation.

It’s crucial for legal researchers (inevitably also AI users) to have knowledge of and confidence in the people and processes behind the technologies on which they rely. Machine learning is only as good as the people who design, train, test, and refine it. Good AI feels natural to the user. It creates a streamlined experience, but that’s only because, behind the scenes, the technology is underpinned by high-quality data and experience.

Behind the Westlaw AI functionality is a team of knowledgeable attorneys, data scientists, technologists, and designers, all of whom work closely together. Attorney-editors go through extensive training to ensure consistency and accuracy when it comes to how users’ research is organized and presented in Westlaw. Their legal knowledge and standards are similarly applied when they collaborate with product developers to create and refine AI enhancements. All of these elements are brought together to create a clean user interface that ensures maximum efficiency for legal researchers using Westlaw.


Westlaw attorney-editors, data scientists, and technologists will continue to work with our customers to innovate and find ways to augment attorneys’ work through artificial intelligence. Our goal remains the same: to help legal researchers work faster and have more confidence in their results so they can apply their talents, creativity, and expertise to the legal tasks that only humans can accomplish.

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