Monday 30 August 2021

July event: Law Librarianship and AI


Law Librarianship and Artificial Intelligence by Jake Hearn

For the last talk of this academic year the Cambridge Library Group welcomed Jake Hearn for a presentation about law librarianship and artificial intelligence. His interest in the topic has developed from his library masters research at UCL.

Jake began by talking about his career path and identified the tasks and roles in his current job at an international London law firm:

Graphical user interface, text, application, email

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The term artificial intelligence was coined by John McCarthy in 1955 for a conference. Jake set about demystifying how artificial intelligence is being used within the legal information environment. He belives that it is necessary to ensure that the term does “not alienate the general public” through a “better understanding of the technology which it encompasses”. AI is now generally used to “refer to (sophisticated) computer software which has been programmed to automate routine tasks” and can be divided into three types:

Machine learning

Natural language processing

Knowledge Reasoning

Jake gave examples of the technologies being used such as:

  • Thomson Reuters use of natural language processing in Westlaw and the Practical Law Dynamic Tool Set.

  • software such as Kira where firms can upload contracts in batch and conduct contract analysis.

  • And the research project between Oxford University’s Law Faculty and BAILLI which provides the open access data of UK and Commonwealth judgments.

The USA seem to be more ahead of the UK with the use of AI and there are more published case studies, one example being the Case Access Project. It was a Harvard University Project which is open access, now holding over 6 million cases. The law librarians at Harvard were key players on the project which demonstrates that there is a place for us in the field. This data was also used in the Historical Trends tool. Jake showed us an example of how it works.

There are discussions about what skills do modern workers need, such as digital literacy. This chimes with many information professionals existing skills. A UK Government strategy is due to be published later this year.

During the talk and the question and answer session ethics were touched on. Privacy and data protection (if storing and recalling previous contracts and cases) has to be considered, the bias of results – AI reproduces what it knows and doesn’t aid diversity (even just in the ranking of results) - is relevant. When we employ lawyers are we not paying for the human empathy aspect as well as their expertise – is it fair to charge a large sum if decisions made by an algorithm?

Most importantly law librarians, and librarians in general, need not be apprehensive about AI as we already have the relevant skills. Law librarians know the issues with searching, natural language processing, bias - the gaps, the problems and different results that can be obtained. 

He highlighted this excellent quote from SR Ranganathan to remind us that a library is a growing organism that works alongside the organisation it serves. We are always evolving and developing and have encompassed many new technological developments in the past.

Post contributed by Kate Faulkner, Squire Law Library, Cambridge