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How Al Visionary Sarah Alt is Debunking Myths about Al for Law Firms and Clients

Mike Allison

On issues of ethical Al, realistic expectations, and putting client needs first, Chief Business Process Officer Sarah Alt paves the way for her team at Michael Best. For her, Al adoption isn't a matter of "if' so much as "where and to what extent," and she's eager to help fellow legal professionals see all the benefits artificial intelligence has to offer while also managing risks.

Mike Allison: Please describe your role in your organization and how technology plays a part in it.

Sarah Alt: I am the chief business process officer for Michael Best. I collaborate closely with the firm's chief innovation and technology officer, as well as the rest of the senior leadership team to establish a multi-year technology roadmap and annual technology investment portfolio. Together, we design, develop or procure, and implement improvements in people, process, and technology for the firm and our clients. We relentlessly pursue efficient, scalable, simple, reliable, and mobile solutions that reduce the administrative burden and friction of using technologies to achieve excellence for our clients. This role also affords me the opportunity to consult with our clients on ethical and responsible design, development and use of technology. 

What professional accomplishment are you most proud of?

I am most proud of starting my own consulting practice in 2017, which also paved the way for starting the Ethical Al Consortium nonprofit in 2020. In the four years of my consulting practice, I worked for clients in telecommunications, technology startup, retail, legal, higher education, and nonprofit sectors. I established the relationships and credibility that eventually led to joining Michael Best.

When you're not working, how do you like to decompress?

I play sports, work out, and do a lot of outside activities with family and friends. When I'm sitting still, I'm watching sports, catching up on episodes of my favorite shows, or reading.

What aspects or outcomes of Al are you most excited about?

Early in my ethical Al work, I was introduced to AI for Good, an organization that is driving forward technological solutions that measure and advance the UN's Sustainable Development Goals. Al for Good's vision is: "A world where we can harness the full potential of emerging technologies towards creating positive social change." Used ethically and responsibly, Al has been and will continue to be great for commerce, and I am most excited about what Al can do to serve humanity.

When you think about your business or your industry in five or ten years, how will Al have affected it? How do you feel about that?

One of my favorite talks on the future of Al is to debunk myths of Al in the workplace. The first of these myths is: "If I don't have robots, I don't have Al." I remind audiences that they already have components of Al in their workplaces if they are using advanced algorithms, analytics, or automation. Robots have their place in certain sectors, but in professional services and knowledge professions like corporate law, I see humans working with and alongside Al to enhance client value and success.

Humans are still in the loop, on the loop, or even in command in these professions. This means continuously investing in upskilling, cross-skilling, and reskilling talent to work alongside Al in our workplaces, regardless of whether the Al is in the form of a robot or a powerful analytic recommendation software.

What do you look for in your technology partners? How do non-technical practitioners of Al-those who use the applications in their day-to-day work, but don't know how to build it themselves-elicit information from service and software providers to identify bias in their algorithms?

Before looking for a partner, the first thing I do is assess the extent to which fundamental human rights will be impacted by using the technology. Especially when Al is used in situations that could negatively impact human rights, I look for partners who are transparent and can explain how their technologies work when using our data, applied to our processes, with our people working alongside it.

I also look for partners who can help us identify where the technology could unintentionally amplify a bias that may already exist in the data, and share in our commitment and efforts to use technology in a responsible and ethical way.

There are plenty of technology companies who will turn the lights on for us. We need partners who will show us how to use the lights properly and brighten them responsibly. When I need formal assessment guidelines, I consult the World Economic Forum's and European Commission's work and frameworks being developed by national and global standards bodies like IEEE, ISO, and NIST.

What's your advice for organizations hesitant to adopt Al?

Grab a piece of paper. List all the ways your organization uses algorithms, analytics, or automation to recommend or act on behalf of you or your clients. The question is not "if' you are adopting components of Al-it is more likely "where and to what extent" you are adopting.

Next, draw a quadrant box and heat map those instances you just listed. Identify which ones are high risk to humans and externally facing in the top right quadrant. Identify which ones are low risk to humans and internally facing in the bottom left quadrant.

Categorize everything else in between. Decide how trustworthy you want to be in how you use technology now and going forward. Assess and prioritize your gaps for each of those use cases. Upskill your talent to meet your trustworthy objectives as you continue working alongside Al.

Use this same approach when you are designing future uses for responsible Al.

What is one small thing someone could do today to move toward an Al-enabled future?

When you are brainstorming how to use Al to solve your greatest challenges or opportunities, have someone in the room ask, "How might this idea fail?"

I am most concerned about the unintended consequences of Al that is left alone and not tuned throughout its useful life. We should be able to explain how technology works and the consequences of failures to work as intended.

Humans are still in the loop, on the loop, or even in command in these professions. This means continuously investing in upskilling, cross-skilling, and reskilling talent to work alongside Al in our workplaces, regardless of whether the Al is in the form of a robot or a powerful analytic recommendation software.

What's a unique barrier to Al adoption that law firms face?

Law firms face a constant responsibility to weigh the art and science of when, and to what extent, we use Al technologies; to ensure we have met the requirements for humans to be in the loop, on the loop, or in control of decisions; and to do so in a manner consistent with how we advise and counsel our clients. This is less of a barrier to Al adoption entirely and more of a barrier to entry for a specific Al technology that does not meet our standards.

We do not invest in Al just because it is available. We invest in Al that is aligned with the professional and ethical duty to serve the best interests of our clients.

In what ways have you used Al to solve unique client challenges? And how do you wish you could use Al to help clients?

Especially in high-volume transactional situations, we can use Al to scan documents for language that needs updating or amending to be compliant with new or changing standards or regulations. When we use Al technology here, it means clients do not need to scan these documents on their own, we reduce the administrative burden on our attorneys to do the work, and clients benefit from flat fee pricing as a result. This also means our attorneys can focus on the higher value investments for our clients. We are next looking for ways we can help our clients drive efficiency and growth in their businesses through Al­-powered predictive insights.

Mike Allison is a senior account executive at Relativity.