What were 2016’s most important developments in legal technology? Every year since 2013, I’ve posted my picks of the year’s top developments in legal tech (2015, 2014, 2013). As another year wraps up, it’s time to look back at 2016.
What follows are my picks for the year’s most important legal technology developments. As in past years, the numbers are not meant to be rankings — each of these is important in its own way. I also refer you back to my prior years’ posts, as much of what I said in them remains true today.
1. The legal industry gets smart about artificial intelligence.
In my top 10 list last year, I considered it big news that AI had come to legal research in the form of ROSS Intelligence, a startup that uses IBM’s Watson platform to answer lawyers’ natural-language legal research questions. Just as last year closed out, another AI company, Premonition — which says it is applying AI to the largest legal database in the world — announced a seed round at a $100 million valuation.
In 2016, AI in legal grew by leaps and bounds. The year started with the announcement by none other than legal-research giant Thomson Reuters that it was getting into the AI game, using the IBM Watson technology to develop products specific to the legal vertical. At the time, it said it would be rolling out the first of these products in beta by the second half of the year. This week, a TR spokesperson confirmed it is currently testing a beta AI product with nine customers with the goal of launching the product by the middle of 2017. While details of the product remain sketchy, the spokesperson said it targets the regulatory space and will greatly simplify several common and complicated workflows.
Then, in a notable development in March, Deloitte and Kira Systems announced an alliance “to bring the power of machine learning to the workplace, an innovation that could help free workers from the tedium of reviewing contracts and other documents.” From there, it was a year full of AI news – an AI tool to help diagram intricate corporate structures, a self-service AI portal where law firms can configure custom AI tasks, and more.
Meanwhile, ROSS has gone from clever idea to actual product, signing deals in 2016 with several major law firms, including Baker & Hostetler, Latham & Watkins, von Briesen & Roper and Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice.
2. Chatbots start chatting about law.
As a concept, chatbots are nothing new. They trace their origins to the Turing test in the 1950s and the creation in 1964 of the first chatterbot program, ELIZA. But 2016 was the year they took off, driven, at least in part, by the recognition that the best user interface is a conversation, and perhaps also by Facebook’s launch of Bots for Messenger.
In the legal field, chatbots haven’t exactly taken off, but they’ve certainly made a splashy entrance. This was due in large part to Joshua Browder, who at 18 years old developed Do Not Pay, a chatbot he launched as “the world’s first robot lawyer” to help people fight parking tickets. He later expanded it to provide free legal aid to the homeless. More recently, a group of law students at the University of Cambridge in the UK unveiled what they call the world’s most advanced legal chatbot, one designed to help crime victims gauge their legal options.
Suddenly, it seems, chatbots are springing up all over the legal field. In Canada, a company called Legally Inc. has developed Winston, a chatbot that, like Do Not Pay, helps people fight traffic tickets. The folks at 1Law have developed Docubot, a chatbot that helps people generate legal documents. Lawdingo has created a Facebook Messenger chatbot for intake of inquiries by potential clients. A bot called GRBot lets users of the messaging app Kik search the world’s laws on any subject.
While these law-related chatbots remain fairly rudimentary, they are but the leading edge of a technology that is likely to see rapid growth over the next couple of years.
3. Legal startups find stardust.
n 2016, the legal profession continued to benefit from a boon in the number, creativity and variety of legal startups. Last April, I wrote here that the number of legal startups had nearly tripled in two years. When Keith Lee pointed out that the data I relied on to make that claim — the Angel List roster of legal startups – had a lot of junk, I decided to build my own list of legal startups. My list currently has 613 entries; I am confident that it underreports the true number; I learn of new startups almost every day and I already have more to add that I haven’t gotten around to. Angel List roster currently lists 1,401 companies. Given what I learned about that list last April, I suspect it overreports the true number.
The importance of these startups in driving innovation in the legal industry is gaining wider recognition. This year, for the first time ever, ABA Techshow inaugurated a competition (which I helped coordinate) to select 12 startups to exhibit in a special Startup Alley at the conference in March. This was done, said Techshow chair Adriana Linares, so that lawyers could “see and appreciate the incredible amount of creativity and development being introduced into the profession.”
Whatever the exact numbers of legal startups may be, no one can disagree that there numbers are growing steadily and that they are helping to innovate and diversity the technology tools available to legal professionals. That is an important thing – and a good thing.
4. Analytics expand their reach.