Blue J Legal is using artificial intelligence to make the law more transparent and accessible

As law professors, we co-founders have always studied judicial decisions using quantitative methods," says Benjamin Alarie, Osler Chair in Business Law at the University of Toronto and co-founder of Blue J Legal. "So I think we were primed for using machine learning and new algorithms to analyze judicial decision making." Adding that he believes within five years it will be taken for granted that law firms will be using computational tools to get an initial take on a client situation or a legal research problem.

Alarie was serving as the Associate Dean of the Faculty of Law at U of T in January 2015 when he was asked to sit in as a judge for the IBM Watson Challenge, which took place at the university's computer science department.

"The students had a lot of interesting ideas for how to apply machine learning to law, but there was obviously a gap in legal expertise," says Alarie. "I thought tax is such a fantastic area to use machine learning, because the tax system is so complex and deep. You have a third of GDP changing hands from the private to the public sector, so of course both sides want to optimize their behaviour."

After the event, Alarie approached the instructors running the challenge and asked whether they could reboot the following term and focus on tax, and so along with two of his colleagues he created a research course that attracted a handful of keen students drawn from computer science, law, and business.

"By the end of the term, the students were gone and we were left with a horrible prototype, but lots of ideas on how we could improve it. We took a deep breath and decided to turn it into a business in April of 2015. We hired some co-op students who started in September and found a CTO, Brett Jansen, who came to us from Australia."

On a mission to make law practices better through AI

Blue J Legal has since released two products, Tax Foresight and Employment Foresight, positioned by the company as the "next generation of legal research." Both applications work similarly. Upon identifying a legal issue, the software will ask the user a series of questions and then compare the facts of the potential case with all of the previously decided cases to predict what a court might do in such circumstances.

In the hands of a law firm, Blue J Legal's software means better, faster, more affordable services for clients, because it streamlines the assessment process. "In the past, a lawyer might have told you that on one hand you have a strong case, but on the other hand you might lose, and either way hiring a lawyer is going to cost a lot of money. Now, you can receive more nuanced guidance right out of the gate. And for the law firm, it means where a junior lawyer may have made a massive investment in unbillable hours while researching the validity of a case, now in just a few minutes the software has provided an initial take on the merits citing the most relevant case law. Of course, someone still needs to verify that machine-aided analysis and write it up, but the firm saves potentially several hours of unbilled research time that can now be redirected to other billable purposes within the firm."

Machine learning could lead to an increase in the number of lawyers

According to Alarie, there are a range of reactions to the role machine learning will play in law firms, but most lawyers he meets are very excited. He also believes this type of software may actually lead to an increase rather than a decrease in the number of lawyers, since they can now provide legal advice that has even greater value to the client for each unit of lawyer time that is invested.

"On one hand, we have people worrying that there won't be enough jobs for new lawyers, on the other hand, we have a huge problem with people lacking access to reasonably priced legal services; how can both be true in a way that cannot be addressed through better technology?"

"The solution is to use numerous different technologies—including the ones that we're building—to bridge that gap and increase the supply of affordable legal services by increasing the productivity of legal service providers. This can then help to clear the market, meaning you actually get more legal services being profitably provided and affordably enjoyed." Alarie also believes that by using his software, young lawyers will have the capacity to take on more cases, and thus may learn the law more quickly.

Blue J Legal is expanding, and Alarie says Ontario is one of the few places in the world where they could do it. "Toronto is the financial and legal capital of Canada. We have a lot of talent to draw from, both from the legal community and from one of the deepest talent pools in the world for computer science grads. As we grow, we'll definitely set up sales offices in other countries, but I see us keeping our headquarters right here in Ontario."


March 14, 2018
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