Is AI Replacing the Human Associate?

By Jonathan R. Tung, Esq. on June 14, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Should law students or young legal professionals worry about AI taking over their jobs? It seems that anytime a new advancement is made in technology, questions arise about the viability of machines taking over legal jobs. In fact, Artificial Intelligence technology is moving at such a tremendous pace that real fears are welling up that robots might make lawyers obsolete. But how realistic is the proposition of AI in the law firm?

Modern Day Luddites

The fear of machines taking over jobs was once primarily the fear of factory workers. Robots can handle mundane jobs because there is little thinking involved. It's the backbone of our consumerist society.

But now AI is allowing machines to think. Enter ROSS, a creation of the Jeopardy playing Watson and derivative of the very same AI system. With regards to legal research, ROSS's creators say that it can read through the entire body of law and return a cited answer, and not a list of answers. And it does this in billionths of a second, or so they say. Before its human counterpart has finished clicking a button -- tada! Ross wins.

The grim irony is that the machine gets better the more you use it -- just like a real human being or any other biological, living system. But, the difference is that ROSS doesn't get angry, get hungry, get jealous, and doesn't need to take restroom breaks. In other words, over time, it will do your job but without being weighed down by human foibles. Do you see where this is going?

Displacement of Professionals

Benjamin Barton, a professor of law at University of Tennessee predicts that machines like ROSS will "displace" some associates, but it won't destroy the profession.

Of course. We all saw the same phenomenon take place in less grandiose form when fewer house-cleaners were hired because more singles bought a Roomba. But that doesn't make the new associate feel any better.

A Glimmer of Hope

A few thoughts. Watson's technology is still a little rough around the edges and we're still a ways off from being able to carry on a completely casual conversation with a computer. That limitation will still keep machine's like ROSS (we think) behind humans in the short term. This means that machines cannot represent humans in court. So litigators and prosecutors? You can breathe again.

But associates? You'd better start hustling. It looks bad if you start at BigLaw or if you go solo or small, and here's why. If you go BigLaw, you'll be interacting with a machine that only BigLaw firms can afford and you'll be making it better as you interact with it. In other words, you'll be digging your own grave in an attempt to get out of it. It's like quicksand.

As for starting at outside firms who can't afford machines like ROSS, you'll be working at your traditional human paced level of research against a battalion of associates desperately trying to one-up the machine by picking apart your arguments. Meanwhile, BigLaw bosses get to sit back and reflect on all of the health insurance coverage they've saved.

Our advice? It's definitely not time to panic. Instead, it may be time to focus on being human.

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