Imagine attorneys had an assistant that could structure data, help firms maintain transparency through more accurate information, keep track of complex legal and regulatory issues, improve efficiency so firms can scale up their services, and help lawyers handle various forms of “disruptive” competition, without breaking a sweat?
Some believe that technology like IBM’s Watson will help provide such assistance, providing lawyers with the “permission” to think innovatively, help clarify what attorneys do day-to-day—without replacing them—bring about better organization of data, and in doing so be of particular benefit to tech-savvy younger lawyers.
Machine learning might have more of a disruptive impact on lawyers than other technologies because it’s closer to the core of what lawyers do than earlier advances like word processing, e-mail and the Internet. But will technology like Watson impact their core work, or just the way client data and legal work product are created and disseminated?
IBM describes Watson, with its ability to handle even clumsily stated “natural language” questions, as part of a next generation of computing that not only answers humans’ questions but provides insights they might not have considered in the first place, mirroring the human cognitive process of Observe, Interpret, Evaluate and Decide.
This helps law firms keep track of how their information is aggregated and disseminated, providing for additional transparency that can be useful to litigators or investigators. Such systems can be used to track and integrate legal and business rules. They can help understand a client’s complexity and give attorneys tools to help their legal work stay apace. And Watson-like systems can help them scale up and improve efficiency and work processes.
Watson can help lawyers think outside the box of what they do, but to gain efficiencies from this new paradigm they will need to rigorously reexamine the structure of legal knowledge, currently contained as it is in a byzantine network of statutes, regulations, how-to guides, policies, contracts and case law.
Legal reasoning always will be too informal to be validated by a computational system, but Watson will help throw into relief just how and when lawyers add value to a given set of circumstances, empower the types of younger lawyers at the bottom of the totem pole who embrace emerging technology, and help firms better manage data and information. Watson is likely to become a standard query model for professional knowledge, as Google is for web search.
Given that IBM has introduced Watson to the market as a service, with an open model of innovation that is likely to prompt different types of companies to use Watson in different ways, this is likely to create a wave of experimentation. This may prompt attorneys and law firms, perhaps somewhat uncharacteristically, to become early adopters of a new technology.
Although machine learning will have its tradeoffs like anything else, it could have profoundly positive consequences for the legal profession in helping it catch up with other fields in improving productivity, responding to complexity and becoming more transparent. But never fear, Watson will not take over our profession.