From Excel to AI: Why adopting new technology is critical

Ava Chisling
July 13, 2017

Dominic Jaar is a Partner & Canadian Leader, Advisory Clients & Markets at KPMG. He is also Chair of the Board of Directors at CanLII. His previous experience includes: CEO of the Canadian Centre of Court Technology, founder of the LegalIT conference, and editor at The Sedona Conference for a decade. Here is our conversation on the importance of technology in the legal profession.

What was the very first technology you came across that made you go “Wow! This is a game-changer!”

Given when this aha moment happened, the technology won’t impress anyone and makes me feel a bit old… it’s none other than Excel! As a junior lawyer, I had spent a summer reviewing paper documents in a warehouse and was tired of spending hours in the war room looking for documents in which “X said Y,” so I decided to scan all the documents to be able to keyword search. Little did I know that Optical Character Recognition (OCR) was still in its infancy and that “I” was recognized as “l” or “1”, “O” as “0”, and a number of other errors affected the quality of my searches.

Later, thanks to one of our IT support staff, I was introduced to Excel! However, it didn’t survive my next step: hyperlinking images of the documents. It crashed constantly! I then learned of Access relational databases, which, also, shortly thereafter was replaced by the first decent litigation support software: Summation.

Tell me a bit about how you got involved in tech and law and how it’s changed since you first started.

As a litigator, I was interviewing custodians and potential witnesses who often relied on documentary evidence. Eventually, most of them were printing emails, Word and PDF documents and I started feeling uneasy about the notion of “originals” I had been brainwashed with in university. Furthermore, I couldn’t justify the money and time spent scanning and coding (recreating metadata) printed documents, so I started exploring ways to copy electronic documents and do eDiscovery at a time where the word didn’t even exist. I joined a number of think tanks like The Sedona Conference and EDRM and learned from like-minded professionals. I would say this was truly when I got involved in legal tech. Since then, rules, caselaw, technology and the practice of law have evolved tremendously to a point I couldn’t have imagined at the time.

“I now rely on artificial intelligence to autoclassify my emails, and recognize that computers can do a better and more efficient job than my many tricks!”

Since joining KPMG, which purchased my consultancy firm Ledjit Consulting seven years ago, I have developed its forensic technology services to become one of the leading providers of Information Governance, Digital Evidence Recovery, Evidence & Discovery Management, Data Analytics and Cyber Investigations services. I have led major projects in each of these domains, hired and mentored dozens of forensic and legal tech professionals, developed one of the first Managed eDiscovery Services, offering and accompanied multinational and local companies and institutions to manage technology-related risks and remediate when all hell breaks loose.

About 10 years ago, I attended a legal-tech conference where one of the topics was “how to get a handle on your inbox.” Do you think professionals have mastered that skill yet?

From Excel to AI with Dominic Jaar

Over the years, I have given a number of these conferences and wrote a number of articles on the topic for different organizations such as the ABA, CBA, Legaltech and ARMA. Perhaps I was on the panel of the session you attended?

At the time, I was preaching for the empty inbox and providing advice on how to best manage the information overload. Since then, I was humbled as an executive receiving hundreds of emails on a daily basis and I was forced to review my earlier premises and approaches. I now rely on artificial intelligence to autoclassify my emails, and recognize that computers can do a better and more efficient job than my many tricks!

What difference has technology made in the courtroom?

As the first and past CEO of the Canadian Centre for Court Technology, I’m sad to report it hasn’t made any difference. I could spend hours and pages describing why and what differences it could and should have made. However, until lawyers embrace technology, meaning they get interested in, learn, use and plead technology, nothing will happen. I often tell colleagues that years ago, lawyers were nobles in our societies because they could read, write and express themselves clearly in public, while most in the general public could not. I don’t know when we dropped this positive elitism to the point where my grandmother is more tech-savvy than most lawyers.

In your experience, how quick are lawyers to adapt to new tech?

With a few exceptions, extremely slow! To their defense (sort of), as long as lawyers remain dependent on the billable hour, they will never have the time to learn technology (an unbillable task), they will never invest in technology (a cost of doing business affecting the bottom line) and they will resist the optimization of their tasks, i.e. reducing the time required to complete it and therefore the number of hours that can be charged for it. When they will charge fix fees or other Alternative Fee Arrangements, they will start focusing on automating and streamlining their tasks to reduce effort and improve profitability. This is where and when technology will be adopted by lawyers. Until then, a few savvy lawyers and law firms have understood it and are making a killing positioning themselves, and their clients, to be the leaders of tomorrow’s legal world.

Are you a fan of artificial intelligence?

I guess I could say I’m an AI fan in that I started experimenting with AI years ago in eDiscovery, looking at latent semantic indexing and probabilistic finite automata. I have also seen and listened to many AI gurus. However, I am now going through an “AI overdose,” as everything and everyone has an AI story to tell or should I say, gizmo to sell.

from excel to AI

Yes. I understand. That happens when a technology becomes very popular. I just wrote about that topic in an article that asserts: “Riding the popularity wave of AI is now a thing, but not everyone should be on board.”

I still see AI as having major implications for everyone in all areas of life, including the practice of law. While I see the clear benefits of this 4th revolution, I’m concerned about its implications for future generations: Most of us learned our trade by completing simple, even sometimes clerical, tasks.

That being said, as for all technology, lawyers will need to embrace AI. Otherwise, they will be disrupted by non-lawyers offering AI-enabled services that will compete with historically legal work. All tech has a back and a front end, and the quality of the job generally depends on where you’re positioned in the workflow: up or downstream. I truly hope we can lead the development of AI-supported and AI-delivered legal services.

What other tech do you see as indispensable nowadays?

These days clichés are certainly cloud computing and blockchain. The prior because resistance is futile: storage and memory have been insourced and outsourced as a pendulum for millenniums onto rocks, papyrus, paper, magnetic tapes, vinyls and floppy disks, hard drives, servers, CDs, DVDs, USB sticks, flash memory, etc. and now to shared environments to benefit from economies of scale, processing power and quasi-instantaneous scalability. Even if lawyers are still nervous about plowing their clients’ data in the cloud, they eventually will, perhaps when the right (secure and ethically compliant) offering is available.

The blockchain is certainly another technology that will impact the practice of law and perhaps disrupt some of the areas in which lawyers are relied on to provide integrity and confidence. As it is already disrupting financial markets and institutions, it will inevitably force us to take a different look at how documents, contracts and registries are managed.

I think biometrics may be another field that will impact us, the law and lawyers. Security and authentication will likely rely more and more on biometric data. We already see fingerprints being used to unlock intelligent phones, retina scans to cross boundaries in VIP lines, facial recognition in photo tagging apps, and motricity analysis to identify people whose faces we can’t see.

What’s your biggest barrier to making everyone understand the importance of tech?

In universities, student minds are still virgin and open to new ideas and ways of doing their future jobs. They get corrupted when they enter the legacy labor world most law firms offer. When they start, they often try to suggest changes. However, in my experience, students/young lawyers are often reminded of where they sit in the food chain and by the time they reach the influencing or decision-making echelons, they are tired and feel it is now their time to milk the cow that fed their seniors. They can’t take the risk of making changes that may break the eggs of the golden goose. That being said, I believe most lawyers do understand the importance of tech. But there is an important difference between believing in God and actively practicing a religion: action.

What do you think the most important issues surrounding technology and law are right now and in the next decade?

Adoption. As previously mentioned, if we fail to harness technology, it and tech companies will harness us as the tools to inform, design and quality control their solutions and their outputs. I view Bars and law societies, with their legal habilitation to protect the public, as the fiduciary of an obligation to elevate lawyers and the practice of law in order to prevent the uberization of the profession. Some of the means to meet this onus could include the review of training curriculum and CLE to cover technology, as well as the definition of minimum legal tech competence and technological standards.

When it comes to getting large firms to adapt, there can be a gap between the people who want to embrace the latest tech and the people making the decisions. Have you found this to be the case?

I do not see the size of a firm as a limitation to adaptation. In fact, some of the most progressive leaders are found in large firms. Often, these firms also have the financial means that many others lack and the capacity to dedicate human and material resources to innovate.

Nevertheless, I would agree that, up to now, those who want to embrace the latest tech and the decision-makers are not 100% of the same people, but only a subset. I would guesstimate closer to 15 or 20%. However, I have seen this proportion grow from almost 0% a couple of years ago and the pace is accelerating. This can probably be explained by the perceived and actual success of many tech savvy professionals who have grown a profitable practice and whose approach their peers now want to emulate.

We agree on all points, Dominic. In the end, everyone in our profession will have to adapt to tech like AI — or others will take their place.

Ava Chisling

Ava is an award-winning lawyer and editor who counsels creative types, writes about pop culture/tech+law and sometimes creates ad campaigns. She is Quebec counsel for Momentum Law.