Legal Tech, Artificial Intelligence, and the Practice of Law in 2018

Due in part to a better understanding of available artificial intelligence legal tech tools, more lawyers will adopt and use AI technologies in 2018 than ever before. Better awareness will also drive creation and marketing of specialized legal practice areas within law firms focused on AI, more lawyers with AI expertise, new business opportunities across multiple practice groups, and the possibly of another round of Associate salary increases as the demand for AI talent both in-house and at law firms escalates in response to the continued expansion of AI in key industries.

The legal services industry is poised to adopt AI technologies at the highest level seen to date. But that doesn’t mean lawyers are currently unfamiliar with AI. In fact, AI technologies are widely used by legal practitioners, such as tech that power case law searches (websites services in which a user’s natural language search query is processed by a machine learning algorithm, and displays a ranked and sorted list of relevant cases), and that are used in electronic discovery of documents (predictive analytics software that finds and tags relevant electronic documents for production during a lawsuit based on a taxonomy of keywords and phrases agreed upon by the parties).

Newer AI-based software solutions, however, from companies like Kira and Ross, among dozens of others now available, may improve the legal services industry’s understanding of AI. These solutions offer increased efficiency, improved client service, and reduced operating costs. Efficiency, measured in terms of the time it takes to respond to client questions and the amount of billable hours expended, can translate into reduced operating costs for in-house counsel, law firm lawyers, judges, and their staffs, which is sure to get attention. AI-powered contract review software, for example, can take an agreement provided by opposing counsel and nearly instantaneously spot problems, a process that used to take an Associate or Partner a half-hour or more to accomplish, depending on the contract’s complexity. In-house counsel are wary of paying biglaw hourly rates for such mundane review work, so software that can perform some of the work seems like a perfect solution. The law firms and their lawyers that become comfortable using the latest AI-powered legal tech will be able to boast of being cutting edge and client-focused.

Lawyers and law firms with AI expertise are beginning to market AI capabilities on their websites to retain existing clients and capture new business, and this should increase in 2018. Firms are focusing efforts on industry segments most active in AI, such as tech, financial services (banks and financial technology companies or “fintech”), computer infrastructure (cloud services and chip makers), and other peripheral sectors, like those that make computer vision sensors and other devices for autonomous vehicles, robots, and consumer products, to name a few. Those same law firms are also looking at opportunities within the ever-expanding software as a service industry, which provides solutions for leveraging information from a company’s own data, such as human resources data, process data, quality assurance data, etc. Law practitioners who understand how these industries are using AI technologies, and AI’s limitations and potential biases, will have an edge when it comes to business development in the above-mentioned industry segments.

The impacts of AI on the legal industry in 2018 may also be reflected in law firm headcounts and salaries. Some reports suggest that the spread of AI legal tech could lead to a decrease in lawyer ranks, though most agree this will happen slowly and over several years.

At the same time, however, the increased attention directed at AI technologies by law firm lawyers and in-house counsel in 2018 may put pressure on law firms to adjust upward Associate salaries, like many did during the dot-com era when demand for new and mid-level lawyers equipped to handle cash-infused Silicon Valley startups’ IPO, intellectual property, and contract issues skyrocketed. A possible Associate salary spike in 2018 may also be a consequence of, and fueled by, huge salaries reportedly being paid in the tech sector, where big tech companies spent billions in 2016 and 2017 acquiring AI start-ups to add talent to their rosters. A recent report suggests annual salary and other incentives in the range of $350,000 to $500,000 being paid for newly-minted PhDs and to those with just a few years of AI experience. At those levels, recent college graduates contemplating law school and a future in the legal profession might opt instead to head to graduate school for a Masters or PhD in an AI field.

Federal Circuit: AI, IoT, and Robotics in “Danger” Due to Uncertainty Surrounding Patent Abstraction Test

In Purepredictive, Inc. v. H2O.ai, Inc., the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California (J. Orrick) granted Mountain View-based H2O.ai’s motion to dismiss a patent infringement complaint. In doing so, the court found that the claims of asserted U.S. patent 8,880,446 were invalid on the grounds that they “are directed to the abstract concept of the manipulation of mathematical functions and make use of computers only as tools, rather than provide a specific improvement on a computer-related technology.”

Decisions like this hardly make news these days, what with the frequency by which software patents are being invalidated by district courts across the country following the Supreme Court’s 2014 Alice Corp. Pty Ltd. v. CLS Bank decision. Perhaps that is why the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, the specialized appeals court for patent cases based in Washington, DC, chose a recent case to publicly acknowledge that “great uncertainty yet remains” concerning Alice’s patent-eligibility test, despite the large number of post-Alice cases that have “attempted to provide practical guidance.”  Calling the uncertainty “dangerous” for some of today’s “most important inventions in computing” (specifically identifying medical diagnostics, artificial intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things (IoT), and robotics), the Federal Circuit expressed concern that perhaps Alice has gone too far, a belief shared by others, especially smaller technology companies whose value is tied to their software intellectual property.

Utah-based Purepredictive says its ‘446 patent involves “AI driving machine learning ensembling.” The district court characterized the patent as being directed to a software method that performs “predictive analytics” in three steps. In the method’s first step, the court said, it receives data and generates “learned functions,” or, for example, regressions from that data. Second, it evaluates the effectiveness of those learned functions at making accurate predictions based on the test data. Finally, it selects the most effective learned functions and creates a rule set for additional data input. This method, the district court found, is merely “directed to a mental process” performed by a computer, and “the abstract concept of using mathematical algorithms to perform predictive analytics” by collecting and analyzing information.

Alice critics have long pointed to the subjective nature of Alice’s patent-eligibility test. Under Alice, for subject matter of a patent claim to be patent eligible under 35 U.S.C. § 101, it may not be “directed to” a patent-ineligible concept, i.e., a law of nature, natural phenomenon, or abstract idea. If it is, however, it may nevertheless be patentable subject matter if the particular elements of the claim, considered both individually and as an ordered combination, add enough to transform the nature of the claim into a patent-eligible application. This two-part test has led to the invalidation of many software patents as “abstract,” and presents an obstacle for inventors of new software tools seeking patent protection for their inventions.

In the Purepredictive case, the district court found that the claim’s method “are mathematical processes that not only could be performed by humans but also go to the general abstract concept of predictive analytics rather than any specific application.” The “could be performed by humans” query would seem problematic for many software-based patent claims, including those directed to AI algorithms, despite the recognition that humans could never perform the same feat as many AI algorithms in a lifetime due to the enormous domain space these algorithms are tasked with evaluating.

In any event, while Alice’s abstract test will continue to pose challenges to those seeking patents, time will tell whether it will have “dangerous” impacts on the burgeoning AI, IoT, and robotics industries suggested by the Federal Circuit.

Sources:

Purepredictive, Inc. v. H2O.AI, Inc., slip op., No. 17-cv-03049-WHO (N.D. Cal. Aug. 29, 2017).

Smart Systems Innovations, LLC v. Chicago Transit Authority, slip. op. No. 2016-1233 (Fed. Cir. Oct. 18, 2017) (citing Alice Corp. Pty Ltd. v. CLS Bank, 134 S. Ct. 2347, 2354-55 (2014)).