Krishna Sundareshan recalls the refrain. “You can say AI, you can say a set of fancy words,” he says, “but how is it going to make my life better?” Sundareshan is the founder of Surukam, a Chennai-based startup. In May 2017, Surukam was one of six startups selected globally to participate in the incubator lab of Mishcon de Reya, a UK law firm. What he heard was from end-clients—a hard-nosed response, to be sure—but also eager to participate, considering that practitioners of the law aren’t traditionally considered at the forefront in adopting technology.

Surukam has built a proprietary software it calls ‘CruxIQ’, which does contract review, abstraction, analytics and is typically targeted at corporates. It looks at issues like obligations, rights and restrictions in contracts. With contract review, for instance, the volume to sift through can be very high; say, how a change in law affects contracts across the board, which could be as high as 50,000 contracts of a company’s employees.

As Dan Jansen, CEO of NextLaw labs, a collaborative platform launched by the global law firm Dentons, had put it in the ABA Journal: “Law firms have historically had a pyramid structure that technology is evolving into a diamond.” What Jansen alludes to is how legal automation is narrowing the bottom of the pyramid, with technology chipping away at the need for human intervention.

Given the changing form of the traditional legal structure, Jansen’s concern is, to put it mildly, understandable. “If the work at the bottom of the pyramid is being automated, we want to own that technology and not be a victim of it,” he says.

In India, too, artificial intelligence (AI) applied to legal work brings up similar concerns. Sundareshan acknowledges this shift when he says, “[Law] Firms know they have to change”. Anand and Anand, Cyril Amarchand Mangaldas and Nishith Desai Associates are among those top Indian firms that have quietly adopted AI.  

Moving forward

Firms have to move beyond billable hours, the legal scholar Dr Shamnad Basheer indicated in a phone call. At another level, there is room for a more commoditised digital front-facing service model even with less sophisticated technology.

Beyond law firms, the legal system is in dire need of intervention with the glacial pace of case resolution hurting the public and businesses alike.  Nearly 27 million and 4 million cases are pending in the district and the high courts, respectively. A whopping Rs 8,00,000 crore is locked in tax cases alone in India, on which the government pays some Rs 5,000 crore as interest. Big tech companies have automation platforms to offer but startups building AI solutions believe platforms are going to go the Enterprise Resource Planning software way and yield low-value returns on investment.


Virat Markandeya

Virat Markandeya is an independent journalist based in Delhi. He has written on science and technology for publications like IEEE Spectrum, Nautilus and the Nature Publishing Group. He is most inspired while hearing the clangs of history in academic papers. His motto is Pauca Sed Matura and he tweets at @viratmarkandeya.

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