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When Watson Eats Your Lunch: The Impact of Artificial Intelligence in Lawyering

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Watson is such a friendly name for an artificial brain that outcompetes our own slow, distracted, and haphazardly stocked neuronal skull factories. How could this cyber-sidekick, named for a second fiddle intelligence, come to undermine our professional authority?

For a long time, our best sci-fi writers and the cognoscenti of artificial intelligence have been telling us that it's not a question of if but when machines will take over even the most sophisticated and nuanced intellectual work. As lawyers we've comforted ourselves that even if that's true, it will happen tomorrow, not today. Surely the uniquely human empathic capacity that bring to the hard mental work of lawyering will make what we do forever unsuited to takeover by artificial intelligence.

The evidence is mounting,  however,  that when is now and a profound transformation in the delivery of legal services is already well underway. Ars Technica told us last week that Law firm bosses envision Watson-type computers replacing young lawyers. Latham & Watkins told The American Lawyer it is "test-driving new IBM Watson-based applications, including cognitive and predictive coding technologies." Artificial Intelligence in Law – The State of Play in 2015? neatly describes the current landscape. In legal research,  the hardest work is "practical implementation against good data at scale;" legal research innovators like Fastcase and RavelLaw have already done that work, and are adding visualization to enhance its usefulness. Many vendors are using procedural rules and inferencing to generate legal documents. And e-discovery has taken off with the implementation of predictive coding (technology-assisted review or TAR) that processes huge data sets using natural language and machine learning techniques. 

But from England last week yet another post on the subject, Come the AI legal armageddon, what's in it for me? that includes the reassuring thought from a young London lawyer that AI may actually bring some joy and comfort to lawyering:

As a fixed-fee direct access barrister, I often end up spending far more time on a project than I can bill to my client – technology which increases my accuracy and decreases my hours is certainly something I’m keen to explore. That said, the main focus of my practice tends to involve translating human interactions into legal terms which are then assessed by human judges and tribunals. Translating into and out of “human” is something technology has yet to learn to do. I’ve no doubt it can learn: by analogy, it used to be said that chess grand masters could never be beaten by machines – until they were. I’m not sure of the degree to which machines should replace human decision making: I’m uncomfortable about the risks of King Solomon-style “justice” instead of living, breathing decision-makers willing to mitigate rough justice with “mercy” and “equity.” Rather, I see technology as an important tool to increase accuracy, decrease time spent on routine tasks, giving me the freedom to efficiently focus on the aspects of a case which genuinely require a living expert in law and 'human'.

With every passing day there are more and more AI tools available to us. Will they nourish us, or consume us? The choice is still ours.


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An artificial intelligence technique called natural language processing has proved useful in scanning and predicting what documents will be relevant to a case, for example. Yet other lawyers’ tasks, like advising clients, writing legal briefs, negotiating and appearing in court, seem beyond the reach of computerization, for a while....

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