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Could Computers Soon Replace Lawyers?

The other night I received one of those annoying fundraising calls that many of us receive. It was from a charity I had never given to in the past and the lady on the other end of the call seemed to be reading from a script. I tried to politely break into the call with no luck. Then I noticed a quick glitch in the script. I asked, “Is this an automated call?” After a long pause a very computerized sounding voice said, “Yes.” I had been interacting with a sophisticated robo call. And to be frank, until I overloaded it with interruptions and caused it to glitch, it sounded very real.

The next day I was reading my new Fortune magazine and came across Roger Parloff’s article, on deep learning and artificial intelligence. The article explains the rise of the next generation of artificial intelligence, the development of computer neural networks that can teach themselves how to “learn”. These new neural networks can teach themselves how to identify a cat across pictures and video. They account for the rapid improvement of voice recognition software like you may use in Siri on your iPhone. In the last four years this type of artificial intelligence has moved so swiftly that the article describes its advancement as quantum leaps.

For example, in medicine, neural networks have been able to learn how to read CT scans and MRIs to spot defects like cancer. At least one developer claims, the neural network was more accurate than real radiologists.

All of this got me thinking about what these advancements might mean for law. In the near future we may be able to train neural networks to review pleadings and identify likely affirmative defenses to be raised. Neural networks may be able to manage document review, medical records analysis and other discovery more efficiently and more quickly than teams of lawyers. Heck, maybe the neural network could actually draft the answer to the complaint or prepare the first draft of the summary judgment brief by synthesizing its assessment of the documents to its database of case law. No doubt human attorneys would still need to review the potential pleadings or assess the neural network’s proposed motion, but the time it takes to do that will be radically reduced from the time we spend now.

What if that neural network had the voice interaction capabilities of the robo call I received? Maybe a neural network could handle client screening and intake, or staff a legal call in phone line. As it learns, could a neural network actually take a phone statement or even a deposition? Could it learn enough to deduce what questions to ask based upon the answer it just received? It seems far-fetched, but consider how effectively Siri answers many of your questions right now.

If those types of technology advancements happen, I wonder what it might mean for the future of our profession. Who will pay for the investments to purchase that type of software? Could it learn to incorporate the preferences of the attorney who purchases it? How would one bill for time spent by the machine?

I wonder if law will become increasingly divided between the legal artists hired to create master pieces on very complex or high value files and the mass produced art of a Kirkland or Ikea, functional but valued primarily for its affordability. If that happens, how will each lawyer decide whether they are the artist or the retailer?

I have no idea what the next ten years holds for our profession but I think we should all be asking these questions. Innovation and disruption seem, ironically enough, to be the only constants in our world these days. The smartest lawyers will be those who constantly ask themselves, “what if?” not those who blindly assume that what they bill for now will still be available in five years. These are exciting but uncertain times.

UPDATE:
From my LinkedIn feed this morning, here is a link to an article from Richard Susskind and Daniel Susskind with a more in depth analysis of how technology might replace doctors, lawyers and other professionals.

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