AI: no more silk purses from sow’s ears?

Artificial intelligence in the professions seems here to stay but Sue Bramall asks: is it anything but artificial?

In a technology round table report published recently by one of the leading legal magazines, one of the panel of four declared that artificial intelligence (AI) “is unlikely to take center stage just yet, and certainly not in the short-to-medium term” with two other participants concurring. I suspect this quote may come back to haunt him, as the fourth member of the panel had already seen the future and quoted the developments in AI which had already taken place in 2015 between BLP and RAVN, between Pinsent Masons and Cerico, and between Dentons with IBM Watson.
The theme of ‘artificial intelligence’ is one of the hot conference topics for 2016 – so much sexier than ‘big data’. However, such intelligence is anything but artificial. The large volumes of real time quantitative information is valued because of its impartiality, breadth of detail and utility.

A better and more appropriate name would be ‘applied intelligence’- but that wouldn’t give us an excuse to liven up presentation and articles with images from sci-fi films.

Hitherto in many areas of marketing professional service, we have had to build our messages upon qualitative and often subjective data. There are some exceptions, such as corporate transactions where deal values are shared and compared or property transactions where we can measure real estate. But often claims cannot be backed up with hard data.

Armed with a SWOT analysis we highlight a firm’s best attributes and downplay the weaknesses – just as a litigator focuses on the strengths of their case and distracts from any shortcomings. If the marketing team is doing a really great job are they always reflecting reality, or making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear?

One of the core activities in professional services marketing is creating opportunities for fee earners to meet and build relationships with intermediaries who will generate those much valued referral. It is worth investing in those tickets to the Six Nations Rugby to stay close to the fellow juicy cases and deals.

We know how important it is to create strong relationships with our clients to cross-sell other services, and to ensure that they are not tempted to look elsewhere or to test the market. Few clients relish the prospect of testing the market.

It is hard work, distracting from the matters in hand, hard to really distinguish from different providers. A key problem for clients, especially those that purchase professional services infrequently, is that it is virtually impossible to judge the quality of the advice, and so decisions are made on issues that are easier to compare, such as responsiveness and cost, and on recommendations.
But are personal recommendations always in a client’s best interest? Have you ever referred a lawyer, barrister or accountant for some work without really knowing whether they could do a good job? Whether they would do the best job?

A very small part of this assessment process may include looking up a firm, lawyer or barrister in the legal directories. But what does this really tell you? You may see an anonymous quote and a ranking which is based upon the view of someone who receives two sets of information. First they receive summaries of cases, some of which are more than 15 months old by the time they are reviewed (even older when published). Second they receive a heavily biased list of referees (only a percentage of which may be the clients that they have worked for in the last few months) selected on the basis that they should give a positive response.

But in an age where we can get real-time data on most things, this is anachronistic. Aside from helping to make up a shortlist, are the directories of any quantifiable value when choosing an adviser? In nearly 20 years of working with the legal profession, I have never had a lawyer tell me that they won a new client purely because of a directory listing.

Over the last few years, we have seen the emergence of numerous lawyer comparison websites, which are sold as a way of improving choice for the client. However, like the directories, these are generally businesses that make their money via advertising and referral fees. We have seen law firms embracing and taking a systematic approach to gathering positive reviews on Google and Trustpilot. But one of these options survey the whole market, or give you any factual information about the probability that the lawyer will be successful on your behalf. Wouldn’t that be interesting?
But this is set to change, and recently I was given a peek under the bonnet of Premonition, a set of data on litigation outcomes over the last three years in all the US and UK courts (pity the guys and gals who had to crunch that data) and soon to extend into the Netherlands.

Let’s image I have a $50million business dispute and have tried alternative dispute resolution without success – we are heading to court. In the past, I would simply rely upon my solicitor to recommend appropriate counsel. I might look them up online, but while barristers’ profiles usually list all the cases they have worked on, few detail to what extent they were successful. It is unlikely that I would be any the wiser about my chances of success. I wonder how many clients ask their lawyer to justify their choice of counsel? How many times have they acted for you before? What is their success rate?
Today, I could request a report from the Premonition database of 12,000 High Court cases before drawing up my short-list and deciding who to instruct. That report would show me those barristers with most experience in these types of cases and those with the highest win rates.

As you might imagine, the idea of such forensic examination has been welcomed with about as much enthusiasm as surgeons welcomed the prospect of NHS data on surgery outcomes. I was amazes to hear form one of the founders, Toby Unwin, that not a single British barrister or senior clerk had been curious enough to call up and enquire about their performance since the service was announced in the UK last summer.
While the directories are loved by those that rank highly, and loathed by those that do not, the wider market is not as excited about them. In contrast, this data has an obvious financial appeal for in-house counsel, legal insurers and litigation funders.

Of course there are exceptions, and this data set is only one factor to be considered in a total litigation strategy. The surgeon who performed a while face transplant in 2010 could only offer a 50 per cent chance of success to his patient. Those odds might look bad compared to a surgeon who performs a repetitive surgery on a daily basis with a 95% success rate. But to the fire-fighter with extreme facial burns, it was the only option.
While the lawyers under the microscope seem to be keeping their heads down and hoping this sort of analysis will go away, it is worth thinking of the positive benefits of such applied intelligence, particularly form a marketing and client care perspective, Wouldn’t it be great to have accurate, up-to-date irrefutable statistical data to substantiate our claims of excellence and value for money for use on websites, award submissions and marketing literature and tender documents?

Sue Bramall is the Managing Director of Berners Marketing which provides consultancy and outsourced marketing service to law firms in the UK and overseas.

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