Is There a Watson in Your Firm’s Future?

By Tim Kinnerup

Are you and your colleagues in the legal profession on the verge of being replaced by the next generation of sophisticated computers? Will super computers soon be in the courtroom handling preliminary hearings or filing motions and friend of the court briefs? We’ve all heard about some of the recent impressive exploits of computers with artificial intelligence that have supposedly equaled or even surpassed the brainpower of human beings. First, it was Deep Blue defeating world champion Gary Kasparov in a head-to-head (or head-to-CPU) chess competition. Kasparov later claimed that the Deep Blue team had cheated. Then, there was the spectacle of IBM’s Watson system besting two of the most successful “Jeopardy!” champions in a two-game competition.

Clearly, both of these exhibitions were interesting demonstrations of just how advanced information technology (IT) has become in recent decades. And, with computers mastering such popular games as chess and “Jeopardy!”, quite naturally, we can find ourselves wondering where tomorrow’s technological advances may lead. After all, what will we do if the next generation of computers is capable of defeating human opponents in Scrabble, or Parcheesi, or even (heaven forbid) Candyland? Where will it end?

Seriously though, with IT systems becoming more and more sophisticated, we have to ask ourselves which of the tasks that are currently performed by human beings will one day be automated. And as that automation becomes more prevalent and as artificial intelligence becomes more sophisticated (i.e., more human), what will be the impact on professionals such as attorneys? Are we fast approaching the day when cross examinations will be conducted by laptop computers and attorneys will be replaced by systems run on artificial intelligence?

The short answer, of course, is no. In spite of the implications of the moniker artificial intelligence, computers are not in fact intelligent, and they do not think – they compute.

In truth, creating Watson involved little more than linking a technology that recognizes printed questions – since Watson is not capable of hearing anything – with a large database (consisting of information from science, history, art and other subjects), and then combining that with software that enables the system to calculate probabilities based on a very wide variety of possible word combinations. Of course, this was no small task, and the resulting system was indeed able to retrieve many bits of data and then identify probable answers more rapidly than two very skilled human competitors.

In the case of Deep Blue, the task was more straightforward. Given that there are a limited number of spaces on a chess board and a limited number of pieces that move in a limited number of directions and distances, there exist a limited (but huge) number of possible moves to be made in any chess game. Once these moves were stored in a database and linked to a collection of protocols governing specific game situations and possible outcomes (i.e., what human beings refer to as strategy), the Deep Blue system became a formidable chess competitor.

Without a doubt, computers are quite good at handling routine, repetitive tasks involving the storage, retrieval and processing of data. And, just as power tools have made construction workers more efficient, and tractors have made farmers more productive, we know that computers have made data retrieval and calculating easier and less time-consuming for professionals in a variety of industries. However, in spite of the impressive achievements made in recent years by programmers and hardware developers, don’t look for a computer to develop a unique explanation of why a piece of music is beautiful, or to insightfully describe the feeling of falling in love, or to deliver an impassioned explanation of why a particular piece of legislation is morally problematic.

Of course, computers will become more sophisticated in the years ahead; however, barring a complete overthrow of our current legal system (as well as some major changes to the Constitution), we are not going to see computers acting as judges or lead counsels in criminal cases. For the foreseeable future, computers will not replace lawyers any more than calculators have replaced accountants or ATMs have replaced bankers.

Still, from a purely practical standpoint, computers will play an increasingly critical role in the legal profession as technology becomes more sophisticated. Remember, at one time, all legal documents were written by hand and saved in hard copy. Today, they are prepared on laptops and stored as PDF files. Additionally, courtroom testimony that is delivered via remote video hookup was inconceivable just a few decades ago. This evolutionary process will surely continue.

Every day, law firms handle numerous tasks that can easily be automated. Routine document preparation, filing, archiving, scheduling, billing and many aspects of legal research can quite capably (and cost-effectively) be handled by computers. Automating such tasks leads to lower administrative staff costs and provides attorneys with more time for high-quality contact with clients. Additionally, with automation, law firms have a much greater opportunity to enhance the security of their records and to enforce internal compliance with company regulations and legal protocols.

In a family law practice, one day soon, a computer might schedule appointments, answer routine questions regarding divorce proceedings and present potential clients with necessary documentation to be completed in advance of the first meeting with an attorney. By automating such tasks, a law firm can keep administrative costs under control and free up skilled legal staff to respond to delicate questions regarding the dissolution of a marriage or prepare a closing argument in defense of an individual parent’s custody rights.

Additionally, as computers perform relatively complicated research tasks and provide attorneys with instant access to high-court opinions regarding relevant precedent-setting cases, attorneys can spend more time preparing cases that subsequently set new precedents and crafting arguments that might sway a jury on matters of liability or guilt and innocence.

Over the next several years, your ability to effectively leverage the capabilities of the latest data management technologies will largely determine the success – and even the survival – of your firm. The problem is not that computer technology might replace attorneys. Rather, the question you should be asking is whether your firm is adequately prepared to take advantage of the benefits technology will offer.

And adequate preparation will require appropriate staffing, ongoing employee training and strategic investment in technology.

Employee training should be a sizable and consistent item on your firm’s operating budget. As new solutions are developed and enhanced, your employees will need to continually upgrade their IT skills. Of course, this will generally result in greater efficiency at your firm, which translates into a rapid return on your training investment.

Finally, decisions regarding IT staffing will largely be determined by the solutions you select. If your IT environment is to remain in-house, you will need someone on hand who can quickly and effectively respond to user questions and to system problems that will surely arise at precisely the wrong moment. However, in addition to your in-house staff, you will want to find the right external resources. A technology reseller consisting of nothing more than a few salespeople may indeed save you some money on your initial IT investment. However, what will you do when your system goes down, and your reseller has no technical staff? Look for a technology partner who can provide solutions that will adequately meet your changing needs, and who has the necessary staff to keep those solutions up and running.

Today’s rapid developments in artificial intelligence and data management will undoubtedly lead to many changes for the legal profession in the years ahead. Much of the work that currently is performed by clerks, paralegals, interns and even some practicing attorneys will soon be handled by computers – and the entire judicial system will be better for that change. The question is, will you be ready for it?

Tim Kinnerup is vice president of sales and business development for QCM Technologies. For more information, please visit www.qcmtech.com.