The level of chatter about machine intelligence and how it can impact law practice seems to be growing.
That makes sense – what with IBM’s Big Blue wiping the floor first with chess grandmasters and then with Jeopardy champions, it seems appropriate to wonder how ever smarter machines can impact legal services.
Watson today is all grown up compared to the baby versions that trumped chess players and game show champions. Today’s Watson has moved on to less structured and more difficult chores such as developing debate arguments, and IBM’s General Counsel claims it could easily pass a bar exam.
Machine intelligence is already transforming other knowledge industries. One example would be journalism, where some routine forms of news are now entirely created by computers from sources such as securities filings, and where human curated periodicals have been significantly supplanted by machine curated services such as Google News.
LegalZoom and its competitors such as RocketLaw are already very much on the radar screens of consumers and small firm lawyers. Documents that have been staples of small firm practice – simple wills, simple contracts, or residential and commercial leases – can be personalized and printed without a lawyer involved. Even simpler, smart phone apps such as Shake can create simple contracts such as sales agreements or confidentiality agreements, obtaining signatures online and e-mailing copies to all the parties. On the commercial side, most big cases now begin with software driven review of documents via predictive coding, not human review.
John McGinnis and Russell Pearce recently published a piece in a symposium issue of the Fordham Law Review that predicts a bullish future for machine generated legal services. They see benefits for some lawyers – exceptional lawyers will be easier to spot in the machine age, they believe, and consumers now priced out of legal services might find solutions through practitioners who harness machine intelligence. That aside, they see downsides for meat and potato lawyers as machines take on ever fatter slices of the work of document review, document and form creation, better and faster legal research, and outcome prediction based on big data rather than intuition.
More recently, Silicon Valley veteran Paul Lippe and law and data master Daniel Katz have a column in the ABA journal with ten predictions about how technology like Watson will impact the law. Like McGinnis and Pearce, they see an ever growing role for machine intelligence in law.
One prediction they make that I hope is right is that machine intelligence will drive demands for more readily discoverable law, as opposed to the murky dogs’ porridge of statutes, cases, regulations, opinion letters and more that currently obscure legal duties. As machines do more of the grunt work of digging out rules, pressure will build to make the rules conform to rational and predictable data structures.
Another has to do with the classroom – once all law students have the equivalent of a Watson on their smart phones, the power of the Socratic professor will be undermined. I think Wikipedia already does some of that, but I think the ultimate point is a bit deeper – as it becomes trivial to discover applicable legal rules, law schools will have to rethink exactly what they can teach that is of value and how they need to teach it.
So long as regulatory barriers don’t block progress, I think legal machine intelligence will have another impact – enabling non-lawyers to play ever bigger roles in the delivery of routine legal services. Technology can become a force multiplier for lightly trained technicians, providing not just answers but a vehicle for monitoring outcomes.
MinuteClinic allows non-doctors to provide drugs and other treatment for a range of common diseases. They can do that because technology allows them to reliably diagnosis a defined range of common ailments and then proceed straight to the standard treatment. Whereas back in the day a doctor would use training and judgment to decide what ailed a patient, today a blood or urine sample plugged into a machine provides a faster and more reliable answer, enabling nurses to read out the results and hand over the correct medication. When machine intelligence allows computers, perhaps working off client entered forms, to provide the same kinds of answers that machines analyzing blood or saliva samples can in the medical settings, non-lawyers can help provide and follow through on the standard solutions at a much higher level than now possible with online form services.
These are fundamental historical and societal changes in play, as significant in their own way as the rise of factories at the dawn of the industrial revolution. Technology now impacts the intellectual professions the way mechanized factories impacted hand crafts. The changes, even for organizations that survive and prosper, will be profound.