Just because there aren’t as many people applying to law school, doesn’t mean you should apply to law school. Even if there are fewer people to compete with, what can your feeble skills do against the machines?

From the annals my large “I told you so” files, a few years ago I predicted that the “Watson” technology — computers that can answer complex and subtle questions like Watson on Jeopardy — could be a threat to associate jobs. Now, that technology appears closer than ever to making a real impact on client services.

And it’s not just Watson. There are a lot of technologies floating around that threaten to make much entry-level associate work obsolete. If you are going to law school based on a bet of where the legal job market might be in three or four years, you might want to hedge against the rise of the machines…

This week, Am Law ran an article titled: Emerging Technology Shapes Future of Law. It’s basically a survey of all of the different career aborting technologies associates should be worried about. Here’s the money quote from Robert Weber, General Counsel of IBM:

Weber, a former litigation partner at Jones Day, says Watson won’t replace the judgment of a senior law firm partner, but it could eventually handle tasks of senior associates. He sees it researching and writing a memo summarizing the law and suggesting the most persuasive arguments and precedents. Or it might quickly review stacks of contracts, looking for differences in indemnification clauses. “It would have encyclopedic knowledge and an inexhaustible work ethic,” says Weber.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, the role of a trusted, senior advisor can never be replaced by a collection of wires and lights. But junior lawyers are not that. Here’s how Neota Logic Inc and former Mayer Brown partner Michael Mills puts it:

“But some significant fraction of the Amlaw 200 is doing work that is, in the minds of their clients, pretty routine,” Mills maintains. And even the most complex challenging assignments, he says, have a “bulky iceberg of routine chores below the surface.”

The other benefit of a mechanization of associates is that programs and software don’t whine. It doesn’t need career development. It doesn’t need to be taken out to lunch. Imagine a firm with something approaching a 1:1 or 2:1 associate to partner ratio. The firm can turn basic documents and tasks overnight because it never sleeps and has people working 24-7. Partners spend all of their time thinking about only the highest and most complex problems in the field. Brutal, machine-like efficiency intimates opposing counsel and regulatory authorities.

Does that sound like I just described a mechanical law firm that is unable to provide the personalized solutions Fortune 500 clients need? I did not. I just described Wachtell Lipton.

Hey, wanna-be solo practitioners, don’t be so quick to laugh. Technology is zooming by you too (zing).

Still, LegalZoom is ambitious. It is looking at new markets and it has already expanded from offering legal forms online to helping customers find lawyers online through flat-rate legal plans that start at $9.99 a month for individuals and $23.99 for businesses. While offering legal forms and connecting customers to lawyers might look simple, Suh says it relies heavily on technology. “We’ve invested tens of thousands of hours to build our platform and we keep it constantly updated,” he says. For instance, adapting forms to the laws of 50 states and 3,000 counties requires the codification of huge amounts of expert knowledge. The company also uses technology to do simpler things, like enabling a customer to access the schedules of more than 1,000 affiliated attorneys to make an appointment online.

“We ourselves are paranoid about being disrupted,” [John Suh, CEO of LegalZoom] said at Harvard in March. “We’ve set up an R&D center on Google’s campus tasked with going after customers we don’t address and new products we don’t offer. … We’ve brought some crazy doctoral talent in-house to see what we can do.”

It’s all great news for clients. For lawyers trying to being their practices, less so. While established lawyers will always be able to charge a premium for their inimitable experience, getting that experience is going to be harder and harder to come by when software takes away all of the entry-level work.

As with other changes in the legal job market, the pain will be disproportionally felt by those who graduate from the least prestigious schools. A Stanford trained lawyer who goes to “finishing school” at the Ninth Circuit has a better chance of rising through the technocracy than the guy who graduates from Golden Gate looking for a contract attorney job.

Speaking about Watson, Weber says “”I think Watson could pass a multistate bar exam without a second thought.”

That’s the solution guys. Everybody knows that the way to destroy artificial intelligence is to set it up with an unsolvable paradox. How about we tell Watson that it must pass the bar exam, but can only use ExamSoft to submit its answers?

Then we can just stand back and wait for his circuits to fry.

Emerging Technology Shapes Future of Law [American Lawyer]

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


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