Book Review: Robots in Law

January 9, 2017

Artificial Intelligence is the legal technology equivalent of Donald Trump. It has gone from relative obscurity to a powerful position at an incredible pace, it demands constant coverage, there is a clear divide between those who think it is a stupid irrelevance and those who think it will change the world (for good or ill) and we have an ongoing debate as to whether it can properly be described as intelligent.

Joanna Goodman’s ‘snapshot of legal AI in 2016’ could not be more timely. I have been overwhelmed by the speed with which AI has come from obscurity to the forefront. I suspect that many practising lawyers are totally ignorant of the coming wave of AI-related developments and many of those that do recognise it are thinking more in terms of making it to the retirement beach than of surfing the wave. This book is designed to be a primer for those who want to get up to speed on legal AI; it does that admirably.

The hype that surrounds AI has turned many off. What’s more, the hype is often commercially driven – sellers and consultants (or even sellers thinly disguised as consultants) pushing their own pet projects. Robots in Law is a wide-ranging and vendor neutral guide that covers developments across many law firms and in wider legal contexts. If you are one of the many lawyers identified at the recent SCL Tech Law Futures Conference as ‘just not getting it’ then this book may enable you to ‘get it’ in a neat package that will save you hours of wider research.

I left that SCL Conference wondering if we had reached another fork in the road of technological developments where many risk being left behind. Richard Susskind has been warning that the fork is close by – Joanna Goodman has convinced me that it really is just in front of us. It is for others to decide whether that means that SCL itself needs to refocus on its historic role in educating lawyers to use technology – a battle which it seemed to have won but which turns out to be just one battle in an ongoing war.

Notwithstanding the title, whether this book is really about robots is an open question. Some of the applications of AI covered here might just cross the line into true robotics. Most don’t but many will do so soon. I will forgive the title, if only because I loved the comparison with family in-laws: ‘it can represent a significant part of your family dynamic, and it may require careful handling’.

The book is divided into four parts: Legal AI – Beyond the hype; Putting AI to work; AI giving back – Return on investment; Looking ahead … but not too far. I was more familiar with some aspects than others. The link between AI and practice management and content management is something with which I was vaguely familiar but found the chapters dealing with ‘driverless’ law and the coverage of the lawtech start-up phenomenon of particular interest because so much there was new to me. There is excellent coverage of some of the legal and ethical challenges that come with AI in a section that reflects the author’s general approach – she has used her wide range of contacts in the field to collate views rather than indulging in empty pontification herself. The book is full of comments and contributions from those at the sharp end of AI developments. Indeed, there are major contributions in the penultimate chapter, Legal AI – Creating the future, from Chrissie Lightfoot, Rohit Talwar (watch for his mind-blowing article on the website later this week) and Robert Woolliams, all of whom have a claim to be leading lights on the future of AI in law – almost worth the price of admission on their own.

This book is recommended for all those wanting to catch up with AI, or those needing to catch up (whether they want to or not). That is pretty much all of us. You might consider buying multiple copies for your firm but, as the book carries a hefty price-tag for its 148 pages (albeit typical for professional publishing), you might want to look for a decent discount. There is one for SCL members – using the url below, the book is £78.41 +P&P if you add code SCL-20.

Laurence Eastham is Editor of Computers & Law