Machine learning has the potential to invade and disrupt the current market for lawyers in some of the most complex, high-end legal practices. Any practice where there are large numbers of court opinions, briefs, law review articles, white papers, laws and regulations, and other textual material, it appears that IBM’s Watson looms as a tool to absorb it, recognize patterns, and augment lawyers’ reasoning. Remember, however, that Watson is a glutton for vast amounts of digitized documents. Without that diet, the formidable Watson may wither like the Wicked Witch of Oz when sprinkled with water.
Augmentation has a partnering ring, a positive valence, but the dark side lurks. Associate-heavy research memos and scores of partners “coming up to speed” in an area of law will evaporate when software does the heavy lifting and prep work. The experienced judgment of intelligent lawyers will forever be in demand, but software augmentation will limit leverage and slash hours that would have been billed to clients for a law firm tackling a new area of law for that firm.
A chilling glimpse of this future appears in the Economist, Oct. 22, 2016 at 64. The “cognitive artificial intelligence platform [Watson] has begun categorizing the various [financial industry] regulations and matching them with the appropriate enforcement mechanisms.” Experts in the regulatory web that ensnare and confound financial firms vet the conclusions Watson derives from the mass of material available to it; “A dozen rules are now being assimilated weekly.” The target is the estimated $270 billion or more spent each year on regulatory compliance – “of which $20 billion is spent simply on understanding the requirements.” Who knows how much flows to law firms or how much that flow will slow once Watson has matured?
To the extent Watson and look-alikes can make sense out of the tangle of financial regulations, lawyers will experience less demand for their tools and experience. It is unlikely that the projection of legal work to more sophisticated levels, aided by software organization and analysis, will replace the loss of billable hours at the lower end.