Talking Tech with CodeX: Roland Vogl Discusses the Technological Transformation of Legal Practice

Intelligentsia: CodeX FutureLaw & More

Stanford Law School’s Center for Legal Informatics (CodeX) will host the seventh FutureLaw conference on April 4, focusing on how technology is changing the legal profession and the law itself.  Here, the founding director of CodeX, Roland Vogl discusses this, the upcoming FutureLaw conference, and more.

Technology is affecting many industries. How is technology changing the practice of law?

Information technology is coming to the law from many different angles. It facilitates legal search, it enables lawyers to process large amounts of information in new ways and make predictions around legal outcomes, it streamlines and automates legal processes, it enhances law practice management, and it provides for new ways to resolve disputes online. Many recent advances that make legal processes more accessible and affordable to clients are tech-enabled innovations for the legal workflow. Legal document automation would be an example of this.

However, much of the recent excitement around legal technology is about legal Artificial Intelligence (AI). The infamous “robolawyer” has become the often-referenced symbol for the purported disruption of the legal profession through AI. At CodeX – The Stanford Center for Legal Informatics, we focus on computational law, the branch of legal technology that is concerned with the automation and mechanization of legal analysis. Generally speaking, there are two AI approaches used in this area of legal technology.

The first is rules-driven AI where knowledge about the law is encoded so that a machine can engage in legal reasoning on the particular legal subject matter. Tax preparation software would be an example of this approach where the system works with a computer-understandable representation of the tax code and applies it to the situation of a specific user.

The second approach is the data-driven, statistical AI approach, where AI systems scan large amounts of data that are then used to identify interesting patterns or even make predictions about certain legal outcomes. For example, an algorithm can go through the entire body of decisions made by a judge and then make a prediction about how that judge will decide the next case. Similarly, many companies are using data-driven AI systems to do contract analytics, scanning thousands of contracts to identify potential errors and risks hidden in the contracts.

Which specific areas of legal activities will be impacted by technology? Which companies are already working in these areas?

There are five areas where I think that technology is growing in importance for the practice of law.

Legal Research: Legal research is the earliest area where computers were used in legal settings. So-called “legal information retrieval” techniques are used to bring legal information to human decision makers. E-discovery is another application area for advanced legal information retrieval.

Big Data Law: Big data law is where we use natural language processing and machine learning techniques to process hundreds of thousands of cases, contracts or other legal data to identify patterns and sometimes make predictions about legal outcomes.

Computational Law: Computational law uses rules-driven or data-driven AI to mechanize legal decision making. One of CodeX’s recent research projects focused on enabling legal domain experts to create systems that implement specific regulatory processes without the need for programmers. This is a step towards helping legal domain experts turn their expertise into systems.

Legal Infrastructure: New tools and platforms have been created to connect the stakeholders in the legal system in new ways. For example, natural language processing and machine learning techniques are used by different platforms to help match clients with the right lawyers around the world.

Online Dispute Resolution: Online dispute resolution is also coming of age. A variety of different providers in this space help parties resolve disputes, especially where going to court would be cost prohibitive.

Will these technologies eventually replace lawyers?

I recall the general counsel of IBM saying that Watson, IBM’s famous cognitive computing system, will be able to pass the bar exam in two years. That was four years ago.

There are different opinions on how long it might take a computer before it could pass the bar exam (assuming that we take that as the ultimate test that AI technologies can perform at the same level as human lawyers). Some think that a focused effort of a few months would be needed; some think this will never be possible. The world is only getting more complex, and I personally believe that as long as there are humans, there will be human transactions and disputes and those will continue to need human lawyers to resolve. SLS alumnus Carlos Gamez, one of the speakers at last year’s FutureLaw conference, called human lawyers the ultimate “context champions” with deep industry expertise who can find creative solutions for their clients. The “robolawyer” that can operate at that level is mostly unrealistic hype at this point.

Generally speaking, I don’t think it’s helpful to think of technology as replacing lawyers, but rather replacing some of the more mundane tasks that lawyers have traditionally handled. A few years ago, McKinsey conducted a study about the impact of AI on work. Rather than generalizing about what jobs will be replaced by AI systems, they decided to break out the different tasks involved in certain jobs. Currently, lawyers handle tasks that include “managing stakeholders,” which is very difficult to automate, to tasks that include “data processing,” which are already very easy to automate.

Most legal technologies that I have seen in recent years are squarely in the lawyer-enhancing arena. Today’s lawyers have to be very thoughtful about how to deliver their expertise to their clients. Clients expect predictability, cost-effectiveness and transparency. And technology plays a key role in this new paradigm of legal services. To ignore technology and keep on doing business as usual is a huge risk for any lawyer.

The CodeX FutureLaw conference is coming up April 4 at Stanford Law School. What are you most excited about for this year’s conference?

FutureLaw is always one of the highlights of our work at CodeX. We bring together the thought-leaders and innovators from around the world to discuss how technology will change our legal system. We have speakers from all over the world – including Africa, China and New Zealand – reflecting on how widespread and truly global the legal innovation movement has become.

Kicking things off will be an opening keynote by Dharmishta Rood on the future of communities. SLS Professor David Engstrom will then moderate the first panel on the future of legal tech, civil procedure and the adversarial system. This will be followed by a panel of international experts on the future of legal education. There will also be a panel on “government as a platform” and a panel on free and open source legal tech, including speakers from the U.S. federal government, the ABA, SLS, and others working to make the legal system open and accessible to all.

In addition, we will have a series of thought-provoking LEX (“Law, Education and Experience”) talks and ongoing and new project announcements.

Roland Vogl is a scholar, lawyer and entrepreneur who, after more than fifteen years of academic and professional experience, has developed strong expertise in legal informatics, intellectual property law and innovation. Currently, he is Executive Director of the Stanford Program in Law, Science and Technology and a Lecturer in Law at Stanford Law School. He focuses his efforts on legal informatics work carried out in the Center for Legal Informatics (CodeX), which he co-founded and leads as Executive Director.