Artificial Intelligence (AI) is transforming the legal world. Just do not expect a briefcase-wielding robot to walk into the courtroom anytime soon.
Innovations like automation and machine-learning are making a big mark on the legal profession, although that does not mean science fiction is becoming reality. Rather, it means cloud-based software that streamlines searches for legal documentation and a secure online platform for conducting arbitration electronically. These are breakthroughs at the intersection of the legal industry and technology, a field known as legal tech for short, and they are already helping businesses, law firms, and governments save time and money.
“The pace of change in legal tech globally through 2018 and 2019 has been immense to watch,” says Daniel Walker, Founder of Zegal, a Hong Kong-based startup that uses cloud computing software to simplify the search for legal documentation and provide drafting solutions that help businesses cut down on costs related to legal processes.
“Law firms in Hong Kong are increasingly turning to technology to solve their clients’ problems. As more and more clients demand tech solutions relevant to Asia’s business markets, the legal tech community will continue to grow and evolve.”
In Hong Kong, there are over two and a half thousand startups, employing nearly 10,000 people. Companies like Zegal are tapping into this deep talent pool and quickly changing the game for businesses that might have balked at complex legal documentation previously.
“Historically, legal has been an intimidating topic area for individual companies, especially small and medium enterprises and law firms,” says Tai Hung-Chou, CTO of Zegal. “We provide one place where clients and lawyers can work to get contracts drafted and executed, all online. In the future, with advanced natural language processing and artificial intelligence tools, we will [be able to] allow access to a vast array of legal precedents that can be injected during the drafting process.”
Investment from the Ground Up
The rise of legal tech coincides with a transformation of the entire C-suite, including the general counsel and legal department. Top business school programs in the U.S., including Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), have incorporated AI into their graduate programs.
In Asia, the University of Hong Kong is ahead of the curve. The university launched the Law & Technology Centre, a joint program led by the department of computer science and the faculty of law that advances research at the nexus between the two disciplines. Last year, students from that university, along with students from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, won a grand prize at a global hackathon held in New York.
The students’ award-winning innovation is a browser plug-in dubbed “Decoding Law.” With the aid of machine-learning technology, the plug-in functions as a chatbot that allows users of all backgrounds - from lay person to lawyer - to make sense of complicated regulations quickly.
Setting New Global Standards
Due diligence reviews, document management, even dispute resolution: the ability of AI to perform tasks previously done by lawyers and clerks is helping Hong Kong leverage its status as Asia-Pacific’s legal hub
According to Baker McKenzie, a multinational law firm, projects worth up to US$350 billion are expected to arise from China’s Belt and Road Initiative in the next five years. Hong Kong, with its legal foundation built on the English common law, is of ever-growing importance as a dispute resolution center.
That’s why the HKSAR Government is looking ahead with its legal services. It recently announced setting aside HK$150 million (US$19.1 million) in funding for a new online platform for dispute resolution and deal making. Known as eBRAM - short for Electronic Business-Related Arbitration and Mediation - the system will cut costs by removing the need for travel and face-to-face meetings.
Co-founded and supported by professional arbitrators, mediators and legal practitioners (including members of the Hong Kong Bar Association and the Law Society of Hong Kong), eBRAM will not only leverage AI to assist users in dispute resolution, but also facilitate deal-making online. The greater ambition is to shape how businesses do cross-border transactions in Asia.
“Micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) make up about 97 percent of all businesses in Asia Pacific, and they contribute to about 35 percent of exports,” notes Nick Chan, Chairman for the eBRAM Board. “eBRAM can help MSMEs reach their full potential, bridge culture and language divides, and contribute to global trade and collaboration in a cost-effective manner.”
Using the platform, companies of all sizes, specifically MSMEs that previously could not afford such services, can negotiate and digitally sign contracts with the aid of eBRAM’s AI-powered translation service and secure blockchain storage system. If a deal goes south, the parties in dispute can go through negotiation, mediation and arbitration entirely online. The platform allows parties to appoint dispute resolution experts of their choice, who can handle cases using video-conferencing and read documents online that are kept confidential by blockchain technology. The dispute resolution experts can then help the parties resolve their dispute wherever they are situated.
eBRAM is helping to establish a new global standard that levels the playing field and provides greater legal access for all. It represents just one way that AI is already reshaping legal services.
Even if robot lawyers are not yet in the works, legal-savvy chatbots may well be a first step of that legal evolution.