The legal profession is no stranger to the innovative possibilities of digitalization. The use of virtual data rooms having become a standard in the industry has seen firms adopt progressively larger and smarter document and data management archiving and storage systems. 

Over the years we have also seen many law firms and their clients embrace the convenience, speed and efficiency of digital technologies such as transaction management and electronic signage systems.

Many practices and their clients may be familiar with software solutions such as Signom and DocuSign, both of which offer firms and their customers the ease of location- and time-independent access to secure digital document signing services. As these products evolve, they are also increasingly being accessed from mobile devices such as tablets and smartphones.

Digital communication networks and the sheer mass of digital content constantly being generated allows for continuous communication and an endless information flow, but it can equally result in information overload. This development has prompted some law firms to borrow technologies from other business sectors in a bid to lighten the load of extensive research related to their work.

In 2015, a Belgian law firm was recognized (*) for developing a digital tool to identify potential anti-trust issues for clients considering a merger or acquisition. The firm rolled out its Global Merger Analysis Platform (GMAP) in 2014, a solution that provides a detailed analysis of the key risks in M&A deals within hours rather than days.

So we are seeing a legal landscape in which M&A lawyers are increasingly turning to technology to support their work by doing the “heavy lifting” involved in research – the growing number of cross-border transactions further adds to the burden of the assignment. The use of digital tools ensures that law firms can create efficiencies in their own work, speed up previously laborious and repetitive tasks and also pinpoint errors.

AI data-crunchers, law firm tech bosses, cyborg lawyers

Given these developments, lawyers are now wondering when artificial intelligence will be applied to the legal profession and potentially the M&A sector. It is not too far-fetched to imagine that at some point in the future the courts of law will adopt digital case review systems. This development will impact on the practice of M&A by inspiring the parallel development of intelligent data-crunching systems. 

For example, students at the University of Toronto (**) were asked to find a useful legal application for IBM’s famous Jeopardy-winning artificial intelligence, Watson. In 2014 they developed Ross, a legal research service that responds to questions by sifting through massive quantities of legal documents, cases and legislation. Like Watson, Ross has the capacity to learn so he was also able to refine subsequent responses based on experience. 

One inevitable concern of our digitalized age is the risk of data breaches or compromised data storage systems. As more information is produced – and stored – exclusively in digital formats, legal practitioners will increasingly have to ensure that their digital systems and tools are fully protected from intrusion. Encryption has so far served to safeguard the exchange and storage of highly sensitive information. But as digitalization has created more sophisticated data systems, so too have the threats become more refined. 

The broad application of digital tools and systems in the legal sector could see the rise of the CIO or CTO in law firms, individuals charged with the responsibility of constructing and safeguarding digital data and processing systems. We may also one day see the emergence of legal practitioners with new skills sets who are part-lawyer and part-data management professionals.