BigLaw Is Embracing AI. Are (Human) Lawyers Doomed?

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on May 13, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The human body is weak. We are soft, fleshy. We tire easily, can work barely 16 hours a day. We demand standing desks, days off, health care. When thrown against a wall of endless document review, legal research, contract revisions, motion practice, we crumble.

Robots, however, are resilient. They need none of Man's comforts -- or even pay. And now, when it comes to the boring, rote work that many flesh-bound lawyers slog through day-by-day, at least one firm has decided that robots make a better fit. BakerHostetler recently partnered with the legal tech company ROSS to put artificial intelligence to work in its bankruptcy practice. Is this the end of the law as we know it?

You'll Be Working With Drone416xB79, Esq.

ROSS is an artificial intelligence, machine learning platform that applies IBM's Watson technology to legal research. The key to Watson (and thus to ROSS) is its cognitive computing abilities. Watson observes, evaluates, and decides over and over and over again, getting better as it goes. It's a machine that learns.

Applied to BakerHostetler's bankruptcy practice, that artificial intelligence technology will allow attorneys to "ask ROSS their research question in natural language, as they would a person, then ROSS reads through the law, gathers evidence, draws inferences and returns highly relevant, evidence-based candidate answers" -- at least according to ROSS's press release.

We haven't heard of mass associate layoffs in BakerHostetler, yet. But that doesn't mean artificial intelligence won't end up taking some legal jobs.

As Joe Patrice writes over on Above the Law:

As much as lawyers lionize themselves in the media -- pointing to the tenacity of Jack McCoy, the soaring oratory of Jake Brigance, and... whatever the hell those How To Get Away With Murder morons are doing -- deep down lawyers know that the bulk of the profession involves document review, rote agreement-drafting tasks, and data mining caselaw. We make human drones do this work now, why not shift some of the work to the electronic brain?

Resistance Is Futile

Will AI actually replace most lawyers? We doubt it. (Someone's gotta type in the natural language search questions, after all.)

But, as Patrice points out, AI might interfere with attorney development, as young attorneys turn to ROSS to answer their legal questions, instead of spending a day or two reading through endless case law. "All that mental drudgery is what transforms that young lawyer into the future top-billing legal eagle," Patrice argues.

So, are lawyers doomed to become lazy, stupid slobs living off the indentured servitude of machine attorneys? Again, probably not. Technology has repeatedly transformed the law in the past, and yet somehow lawyers live on.

(Whatever happened to scriveners though?)

Successful lawyers, the kind that will thrive in our AI-run future, will be the ones smart enough to get out ahead of those changes, instead of getting left behind by them.

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