Sunday 04 Jun 2023
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This article first appeared in Digital Edge, The Edge Malaysia Weekly on October 19, 2020 - October 25, 2020

Artificial intelligence (AI), the simulation of human intelligence in machines, is changing the face of the legal industry. Law firms globally are apprehensive about what lies ahead for the industry but changes are already in motion and there is no escape, says Dr Anton Ravindran.

Anton is the CEO of SmartLaw, a start-up based in Singapore that utilises AI to assist lawyers in their work. Its online services help lawyers scan through thousands of pages of documents and answer their law-related questions in seconds. It also helps them predict sentencing outcomes, and extract legal precedents and verdicts almost instantly for criminal offence, contested divorce and medical negligence.

“It means legal work that requires an army of legal associates and hundreds of hours of study can now be done in seconds,” Anton points out.

Such a thing may sound impossible, but it isn’t, he says. “Lawyers who are sceptical about it can try out our system. We can demonstrate how quickly it can scan documents and answer their questions. All these services are already there; they are no longer conceptual.”

SmartLaw may be the first start-up in Southeast Asia to provide such solutions to the legal industry. But there are several other frontrunners globally, especially in the US.

For instance, Ross Intelligence helps law firms conduct legal research by leveraging IBM’s Watson, a question-answering system that can understand natural language. A testimony posted on its website claims that its solution helped a legal firm save 75% to 80% in terms of time taken for legal research while another testimony claimed that Ross Intelligence’s online platform functioned like a “first-year associate doing topflight legal research”.

JPMorgan Chase & Co developed a programme called Central Intelligence (COIN) to automate the work of its law firms using AI. The programme helps interpret commercial loan agreements and is said to accomplish 360,000 hours of work in seconds.

Anton says a few law firms in Singapore have subscribed to SmartLaw’s platform. The start-up is also in discussions with the Singapore Academy of Law, a promotion and development agency for the country’s legal industry, about some other initiatives.

SmartLaw is aiming to provide its services to the Malaysian legal industry by this year. In fact, its services would have already been available locally if not for the Covid-19 pandemic that restricted individuals from travelling overseas since early this year, says Anton.

“I have close contacts in Malaysia. And we would have been in Malaysia already if not for the Covid-19 pandemic. I would rather meet our potential clients face to face instead of online as legal services are quite a complicated matter.

“However, I’m going to talk to them via Zoom by mid-October if there is still no progress. Our aim is to make legal services available online to anyone, anywhere, at anytime,” he says.

Law firms apprehensive about AI despite obvious benefits

The benefits for the legal industry in adopting advanced technology, including AI, are apparent. It saves them time and money by speeding up their research, says Anton.

“Law firms spend most of their time conducting legal research, which is the groundwork, instead of drafting documents or mounting a defence. With AI, they no longer need to spend an enormous amount of time on it,” he explains.

When hundreds of hours of legal research are cut to seconds, it also means that law firms can afford to take on more legal and hire fewer people.

“Lawyers can also spend their time on more important matters and specialise in areas in which they are interested,” Anton notes.

The cost of adopting AI services provided by the likes of SmartLaw is affordable for law firms of various sizes, he adds.

Without divulging its pricing, Anton says users can pay for modules (whether it is the eDiscovery or prediction module) or pay per use. They can also opt for monthly or annual subscriptions for one of those modules or both.

“We will localise and adjust our pricing when we offer services in other countries.”

However, law firms are slow in adopting AI technology as they are worried about its impact on the legal industry. This is because innovations like these could significantly reduce billable hours, and thereby, their income. It could also mean that legal associates, the ones who are usually tasked with conducting this research, become redundant.

However, Anton says, legal firms need to face facts and not hide from technological advancement. And even if they bury their heads in the sand, it is only a matter of time before the industry is disrupted. Change will happen, whether they like it or not so it is better if they remain in the know and ahead of the curve.

But it’s not all bleak. Anton points out that while repetitive or mundane tasks will be taken over by technology, new jobs will be created.

“For instance, law firms will need to hire legal engineers who can help them to understand and adopt technology. There is a fear that AI will replace people. While this may be true in some cases, it also creates new jobs that could reduce costs, generate higher ROI (return on investments) and reduce human errors at work,” he says.

By making legal services cheaper, technology will also democratise the legal industry by making it more affordable to the man in the street, he adds.

“Justice will be democratised. Legal services today are expensive and the ordinary people might not have access to good lawyers. However, justice shouldn’t mean the more you pay, the better [representation] you get.

“Technology has democratised many industries. The legal industry is one of the last frontiers,” he says.

As start-ups like SmartLaw offer their services online, it also makes legal services more accessible to the masses as they can engage these services directly through an online platform.

“For instance, a person can use our prediction module, at a fraction of the cost, to seek an opinion on whether to sue another person. He or she does not need to go from law firm to law firm to seek an opinion.

“Or, depending on the gravity of the matter, a person can use the online platform for a first opinion and engage other lawyers for a second or third opinion,” he says.

How SmartLaw works

Dr Anton Ravindran, CEO of SmartLaw, says the start-up utilises advanced natural language (ANLP) processing to develop its artificial intelligence (AI) platform.

Unlike a keyword search with no intelligence involved, its ANLP-enabled platform is intelligent enough to understand the questions posed by end users (lawyers) in simple English and search its entire database, which contains tens of thousands of previous judgments and verdicts.

It will then extract the relevant documents, or judgments and verdicts, and rank them in the order of relevance to answer the questions, he says.

“This will eliminate the grunt work of legal research which is very time-consuming and costly,” he points out.

The platform also has an additional function where a lawyer can scan hundreds of pages of documents and key in a legal question in simple English. The platform will then read those documents in seconds and respond to the question, says Anton.

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