The pace of technology improvement is notoriously unpredictable. For years, labor economists said routine work like a factory job could be reduced to a set of rules that could be computerized. They assumed that professionals, like lawyers, were safe because their work was wrapped in language.
But advances in artificial intelligence overturned that assumption. Technology unlocked the routine task of sifting through documents, looking for relevant passages.
So major law firms, sensing the long-term risk, are undertaking initiatives to understand the emerging technology and adapt and exploit it.
Dentons, a global law firm with more than 7,000 lawyers, established an innovation and venture arm, Nextlaw Labs, in 2015. Besides monitoring the latest technology, the unit has invested in seven legal technology start-ups.
"Our industry is being disrupted, and we should do some of that ourselves, not just be a victim of it," John Fernandez, chief innovation officer of Dentons, said.
Last month, Baker McKenzie set up an innovation committee of senior partners to track emerging legal technology and set strategy. Artificial intelligence has stirred great interest, but law firms today are using it mainly in "search-and-find type tasks" in electronic discovery, due diligence and contract review, Mr. Allgrove said.
More than 280 legal technology start-ups have raised $757 million since 2012, according to the research firm CB Insights.
At many of these start-ups, the progress is encouraging but measured, and each has typically focused on a specific area of law, like bankruptcy or patents, or on a certain legal task, like contract review. Their software learns over time, but only after it has been painstakingly trained by human experts.
When Alexander Hudek, a computer scientist whose résumé includes heavyweight research like working on the human genome project, turned to automating the review of legal contracts in 2011, he figured that he would tweak standard algorithms and that it would be a four-month job.
Instead, it took two and a half years to refine the software so it could readily identify concepts such as noncompete contract clauses and change-of-control, said Mr. Hudek, chief technology officer of Kira Systems.
The Kira program sharply winnows the number of documents read by people, but human scrutiny is still required.
Yet the efficiency gains can be striking. Kira's clients report reducing the lawyer time required for contract review by 20 percent to 60 percent, said Noah Waisberg, chief executive of Kira.
In Miami, Luis Salazar, a partner in a five-lawyer firm, began using software from the start-up Ross Intelligence in November in his bankruptcy practice. Ask for the case most similar to the one you have and the Ross program, which taps some of IBM's Watson artificial intelligence technology, reads through thousands of cases and delivers a ranked list of the most relevant ones, Mr. Salazar said.
Skeptical at first, he tested Ross against himself. After 10 hours of searching online legal databases, he found a case whose facts nearly mirrored the one he was working on. Ross found that case almost instantly.
Mr. Salazar has been particularly impressed by a legal memo service that Ross is developing. Type in a legal question and Ross replies a day later with a few paragraphs summarizing the answer and a two-page explanatory memo.
The results, he said, are indistinguishable from a memo written by a lawyer. "That blew me away," Mr. Salazar said. "It's kind of scary. If it gets better, a lot of people could lose their jobs."
Not yet. The system is pretty good at identifying the gist of questions and cases, but Ross is not much of a writer, said Jimoh Ovbiagele, the chief technology officer of Ross. Humans take the rough draft that Ross produces and create the final memos, which is why it takes a day.
The start-up's engineers are trying to fully automate the memo-writing process, but Mr. Ovbiagele said, "We are a long way from there at this point."