Biglaw, General Counsel, Law Schools, Outsourcing, Technology

I, For One, DO NOT Welcome Our New Computer Overlords

I should have written about this days ago, but the pain was still too near to me. The humans have lost to the machines. We might as well start digging towards the Earth’s core, where it’s still warm, and start building our own Zion.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know the terrifying story of “Watson.” It’s a computer built by IBM that just kicked Ken Jennings’s ass on Jeopardy. If you are not particularly scientifically inclined, I can see how that might not sound like a big deal. You probably remember Deep Blue beating chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov and think that this kind of thing has been happening for a while.

That’s just what the machines want you to think. Teaching a computer to understand the subtle nuances of trivia — the puns, the innuendos, the ordering of information — is frightening. It’s a lot different than writing an algorithm that allows a machine to work through all possible chess moves and pick the correct one.

It makes you wonder: “What else could a computer be taught to do?” Over at the WSJ Law Blog, Ashby Jones wonders if the answer might be, “Your job”….

Earlier this week, Robert Weber, the general counsel for IBM, wrote a column for the National Law Journal (and by “column” I mean “a chilling manifesto on IBM’s plans to render human associates obsolete”). Here are the money quotes:

Imagine a new kind of legal research system that can gather much of the information you need to do your job — a digital associate, if you will. With the technology underlying Watson, called Deep QA, you could have a vast, self-contained database loaded with all of the internal and external information related to your daily tasks, whether you’re preparing for litigation, protecting intellectual property, writing contracts or negotiating an acquisition. Pose a question and, in milliseconds, Deep QA can analyze hundreds of millions of pages of content and mine them for facts and conclusions — in about the time it takes to answer a question on a quiz show.

At IBM, we’re just starting to explore about how Deep QA can be harnessed by lawyers. (We’re pretty sure it would do quite well in a multistate bar exam!) But already it’s becoming clear that this technology will be useful in a couple of ways: for gathering facts and identifying ideas when building legal arguments. The technology might even come in handy, near real-time, in the courtroom. If a witness says something that doesn’t seem credible, you can have an associate check it for accuracy on the spot.

Dude, not cool.

Even the normally reserved WSJ Law Blog seemed appropriately concerned about these developments;

[A]nyone who’s worked as a young law firm associate knows that much of what young associates do is grunt work, tracking down cases and scanning through documents. Perhaps Watson won’t replace first-year associates, but it might cut down on law firms’ need to have so many.

Honestly, between LPOs from India, clients refusing to pay for first-year work, and now the rise of the machines, what is the point of even trying to get a job as a first-year associate? Nobody wants you, and everybody thinks your job can be done just as well and more cheaply by someone (or something) else. The entire legal industry seems to think that you are worthless and overpriced. They want “real” lawyers with wisdom and experience to handle the most complex issues, but nobody wants to pay for you to acquire any wisdom or to gain any experience.

But the cost of legal education keeps going up. Despite every possible indicator suggesting that the value of a law degree for new graduates is going down, the cost of getting that degree continues to rise. It doesn’t make any sense. Legal educators aren’t even trying to make a sensible economic argument. Remember, Stanford Law Dean Larry Kramer just told us it was okay for Stanford to raise prices because, well, other law schools charge more. Dean Kramer doesn’t care about outsourcing; he probably has a comment ready about how a SLS student fresh from commencement will be a better hire than anything “Watson” could be.

And he (and law-school administrators who think like him) is probably right, at least today. And maybe tomorrow. But what about three years from now? Or five? If clients and law firms really don’t think that first-year associates add any value, they are going to figure out a way to stop paying them so much.

The future is upon us; how long will it take for law schools to respond? At medical schools, they’re already asking the right questions. The New York Times reports:

For I.B.M., the future will happen very quickly, company executives said. On Thursday it plans to announce that it will collaborate with Columbia University and the University of Maryland to create a physician’s assistant service that will allow doctors to query a cybernetic assistant. The company also plans to work with Nuance Communications Inc. to add voice recognition to the physician’s assistant, possibly making the service available in as little as 18 months.

“I have been in medical education for 40 years and we’re still a very memory-based curriculum,” said Dr. Herbert Chase, a professor of clinical medicine at Columbia University who is working with I.B.M. on the physician’s assistant. “The power of Watson- like tools will cause us to reconsider what it is we want students to do.”

When will law schools reconsider the way they are training law students, so that their graduates can stay a step ahead of the machines? The deans better come up with something — and fast. “Watson” is too smart to take on six figures of non-dischargeable debt for an obsolete education.

Computer Wins on ‘Jeopardy!’: Trivial, It’s Not [New York Times]
Why ‘Watson’ matters to lawyers [National Law Journal]
The Next Threat to Associate Hiring? It’s Elementary, My Dear . . . [WSJ Law Blog]

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