The AI Lawyer Starts Billing Hours


What it means and why it’s a good thing for the legal community and society.

By Brooks Lindsay

You may have heard recently about the development of the artificial intelligence (AI) lawyer, “ROSS” by the creators of IBM’s Watson. Well, the synthetic lawyer was just hired by law firm Baker & Hostetler. This post attempts to explain what the AI lawyer is, what it can do, how it will change the legal community, and why it’s good for the legal community and society.

ROSS is built on IBM’s cognitive computer Watson, a supercomputer that recently strutted its stuff by beating Jeopardy phenom Ken Jennings. The AI lawyer is capable of reading and understanding language, generating thoughtful legal analysis, synthesizing thousands of case results into precise answers, postulating legal hypotheses, and providing citations along the way. It can also monitor legal news and notify attorneys when, for example, a favorable ruling is delivered on a relevant case.

Some fear ROSS will be catastrophic for the legal profession and diminish legal education and training for young attorneys. These critics believe young attorneys gain special training and insights from legal research and document review. An Above the Law article sums it up:

Deep down lawyers know that the bulk of the profession involves document review, rote agreement-drafting tasks, and data mining caselaw . . . The danger ROSS poses to the legal profession is in disrupting the continuing education of lawyers . . . all that mental drudgery is what transforms that young lawyer into the future top-billing legal eagle.

                  But is mental drudgery really what legal education and training is about? Or is this more the old legal guard clinging to a past they’ve known and therefore a future they hope to pass to the next generation of attorneys? In reality, no special lessons are gained from the vacuous process of searching for relevant case law, or pouring over legal documents to find a relevant clause. Rather, special lessons are gained from actually finding, possessing, digesting, and analyzing relevant case law and contract clauses. And the faster an attorney (or ROSS) finds a relevant case or clause, the faster that attormey can turn their attention to the next relevant case or clause; the learning process doesn’t end just because some answers have been found – in fact, valuable learning and understanding is accelerated. In this way, I view ROSS as a means for young lawyers to more quickly find the information they are looking for so that they can efficiently begin the process of actual legal analysis and counsel.

The view that ROSS is a useful tool has emerged, and I believe this view is correct. University of Washington Professor Ryan Calo said to the Washington Post recently:

 The use of complex software in the practice of law is commonplace — for instance, in managing discovery. Watson is a tool — in law or medicine or another context — to assist professionals in making judgments. Eventually, I bet not using these systems will come to be viewed as antiquated and even irresponsible, like writing a brief on a typewriter.

Ultimately, lawyers young and old will still be responsible to make judgements regarding the results and analyses ROSS delivers. For some time to come, the ability to judge moral, ethical, and practical considerations will remain the province of humans. And ROSS will not be able to apply for a Bar license anytime soon, so the right to provide counsel and interface with clients, judges, and juries will stay squarely in the hands of human lawyers. Ultimately, ROSS will allow the legal professional to add value higher up the value chain – not in document review, but in true strategic counsel. This is what technological advances have almost always done. Hopefully, this provides some solace to those susceptible to some of the apocalyptic fear-mongering surrounding AI (“BakerHostetler Hires Robot Lawyer ‘Ross’, Ushers In Legal Jobs Apocalypse”).

There are a few additional benefits we can expect from ROSS. First, one of the great challenges facing citizens is the barrier to access to legal counsel. A Tech Insider article argued that ROSS may lower this barrier by reducing costs:

By using AI lawyers like ROSS, law firms could charge lower fees since they wouldn’t be paying humans (who generally prefer to get paid for their work) to handle clients’ cases. In addition, those lawyers currently out of work could use AI services like ROSS, which offer a lower barrier of entry into the market, to create more affordable options for clients.

In addition, it may level the playing field. The founder of ROSS Intelligence, Andrew Arruda, sees the development in these terms. “The law is the same for both parties,” Arruda says. “No matter if you have 20 associates doing research on a case, or just one equipped with ROSS, the relevant passages will be found for you.” In this sense, it equalizes the accuracy of basic legal counsel across parties, regardless of whether they represent the rich or poor. This to me is one of the strongest arguments for ROSS. If ROSS helps equalize access to justice, then I think it will have done a great service to the legal community and society.

Image source: The American Lawyer

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