This past weekend, experts from around the country gathered in Denver for the American Association for Justice, which seeks to ensure that any person who is injured by misconduct or negligence can obtain justice through the court system.

Among the presenters at the conference was Thomson Reuters own David Curle, Director of Technology and Innovations, and Tonya Custis, Research Director, to talk about the impact of AI in the legal field. We caught up with David to ask him a few questions about the opportunities and challenges facing lawyers in legal tech today and in the future.

Legal Current: AAJ is coming up this weekend. What’s the name of your presentation and what do you plan to cover?

David Curle: The presentation is called “AI in Legal: State of the Art, and the Role of Domain Expertise.” We’ll discuss the many ways artificial intelligence technologies are already having an impact on the legal system. My co-presenter is Tonya Custis, a research director from our R&D department, and she’ll be speaking about the importance of domain expertise in AI development – in other words, she’ll address the fact that you can’t do good AI in a field like legal without involving legal experts. It’s more than just the technology.

Since AAJ consists primarily of plaintiff trial lawyers, naturally they will be very interested in AI applications that litigators are most likely to engage with – such as predictive coding in eDiscovery, or legal research. But part of the aim of the talk is to demonstrate that AI is going to become ubiquitous in the legal system as more and more applications across all types of legal practices are developed.

And beyond that, I want to help the AAJ membership look ahead and recognize the types of situations where they might expect AI technologies to play a role in the future. Legal work across the entire justice system is going to become more data-driven; learning to take advantage of that trend starts with a new mindset about legal work, and the kind of processes and decisions that can be enhanced by the application of AI to legal data sources.

LC: The concept of “access to justice” and improving how people engage with the law has been a key industry discussion for some time. Where are we at; has accessibility improved and why?

DC: There is an enormous and persistent justice gap. By one measure – the Legal Services Corporation’s Justice Gap Report – 86 percent of the civil legal problems reported by low-income Americans received inadequate or no legal help. Groups like AAJ are fully devoted to representing clients who are injured by the negligence and misconduct of others, but not all civil law issues face by ordinary people are large enough to warrant full-scale legal representation and litigation.

There is increased access to information that’s helpful to individuals trying to navigate the legal system. The LSC is partnering with other firms and nonprofits to develop statewide portals to help guide individuals with legal problems with high-quality information about the legal system. Groups like Pro Bono Net are working on hundreds of projects across the country, but many of those deal with narrow fields of law such as tenants’ rights, and are limited to a city, county, or region. There’s plenty of activity but much of it is fragmented and local in nature.

LC: How have AI and machine learning changed the “access to justice” conversation?

DC: There is reason to believe that AI technologies can play a role in improving access to justice, especially for the “long tail” of claimants whose legal issues may be too small for traditional legal representation and litigation. One promising area is online dispute resolution, where systems are being developed to allow disputes to be resolved in part by algorithms helping to decide small claims based on data from similar past disputes. Another area that many small legal tech startups are working on is AI-driven chatbots, which are question-and-answer tools that lead people with legal questions toward a legal answer. Many of these are very targeted, such as bots for appealing a traffic ticket fine, or submitting a claim for compensation for delayed flight travel.

LC: What does the future hold for “access to justice,” and how does technology help, or hinder, the path forward?

DC: It’s important to understand that AI will play a role across the legal system – for smaller legal problems faced by low-income people, to mass tort claims, to high-stakes commercial litigation, as well as transactional legal practices including contracts lifecycle management.

“Access to justice” is often thought of as legal help for low-income people, but the promise of AI and other legal technologies is that the legal system will be better if all its participants have access to information and systems that make justice more available with fewer resources.

For more with David Curle, we also recorded this recent podcast discussingAI & Big Data in Law, which you can listen to here [or to download and listen later, right-click]

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