How long before IBM enters legal services industry?. . . It Already Has

On March, 1 2013 I wrote a post titled “How Long Before IBM Moves Into The Legal Services Industry?” Apparently, the answer is a little less than two weeks.

On March 11, 2013 the University of Southern California hosted the third installment of the IBM Watson Academic Case Competition. Over 100 students created business plans for applying Watson’s technology to pressing business and societal changes. Their pitches were delivered to top IBM Executives.  See Article,  IBM Taps Next Generation Leaders to Fuel Watson Innovations; USC Students Aim High in First-Ever West Coast Case Competition.

Guess which idea won first prize. . . Yes!, using Watson to perform legal research and predict the probability of success in a particular case.

1st Place – Legal Research: Let Watson Do the Discovery for Your Next Legal Case – For corporate legal departments, building a case — or defending one’s own — relies heavily on fast and accurate research. Past legal trials, court documents, articles and digital evidence: all of these materials can make or break a case, and together they comprise a sea of unstructured data that is both time-consuming and costly to pore through. The first place USC team proposed using Watson to process its users’ research needs, based on its ability to think like a human, quickly sift through online legal documents for facts, and not only identify evidence to support a case — but forecast its probability of success. The first place team’s viewpoint: by placing Watson in charge of research, firms can recover time and costs, while delivering better legal outcomes. In turn, firms that leverage Watson’s speed and efficiency can address the growing legal trend towards “flat fee” billing and research outsourcing.

A guilty pleasure of mine is being able to say “I told you so.” And this presents the perfect opportunity. At this point, no one can deny that Watson-JD will happen and that it will happen far sooner than any of us expected. My prediction was right on the money. I have no doubt that the IBM executives who judged this competition called Robert Weber (the General Counsel of IBM) as soon as it was over and discussed pilot projects for Watson-JD prototypes that could be field tested in IBM’s own legal department.

Now we need to consider questions of application:

  • Who is the ultimate customer of this product?
  • How will they use it?
  • How will the entry of IBM change the legal services industry?

I am not sure what the answer to these questions is yet. I will need to learn more about the functionality of Watson-JD as it comes closer to release. But I do know that none of this bodes well for young attorneys or current law students. This powerful technology will most certainly cannibalize the routine legal work (i.e. research and memo drafting) that is the bread and butter of young associates. If IBM releases this product then many young associates and maybe even some senior associates will be obsolete.

Let me be clear, I am not suggesting that Watson-JD is the end of lawyers. But I am suggesting that this marks the beginning of the end of a certain type of lawyer. If all a lawyer does is conduct research and write memos then he or she is not adding value. Watson-JD can do those tasks 10∞   times faster, with fewer mistakes and will not demand a six figure salary with benefits.

Therefore, if lawyers want to be relevant in the future then we have to evolve. We have to learn programming. We have to become “Big Data” experts and learn how to effectively use the tools that are developing in that area. Most importantly, we have to be good at predicting the future. The true value of a lawyer is his or her judgment. At bottom, judgment is the ability to tell another person that they should act in a certain way because some future event is likely or unlikely to occur.

We need to bring more to the table than legal research and writing skills! Watson-JD is here and it does not take any prisoners.

Disruptive Legal

4 thoughts on “How long before IBM enters legal services industry?. . . It Already Has

  1. I would love to see BigLaw use proprietary technology like this, but I doubt that it’s going to impact the lower-services market places that much, where a lot of bread and butter careers are built and services rendered. Even if it did so trickle down (or get packaged up in smaller/limited forms for those market scales), how likely do you think the hiring picture will change for first years / compensation for those first years? If all this technology provides is supplemental labor, it’s no different than the contract attorneys firms source already, meaning the core services package is still going to cost about the same as it does presently, meaning no improvement in value or the legal market, and zero compensation for those students entering a marketplace unwilling to take them.

    1. I disagree. IBM’s Watson-JD will be way better than a contract attorney at certain tasks. Consider 50 state surveys. I bet Watson-JD could produce a perfectly edited and comprehensive 50 state survey on particular legal issue in a matter of minutes. Can a contract attorney do that? Can a team of 100 contract attorneys do that? No. The cost savings will be tremendous. Also it is not just providing supplemental labor. It seems like it would provide insight as well. Watson-JD could crunch through millions of cases, sort them by type location etc. and tell you the probability of success.

  2. “This powerful technology will most certainly cannibalize the routine legal work (i.e. research and memo drafting) that is the bread and butter of young associates.” It will certainly cut into the young-associates market. But it is more pernicious than that. If the technology is available to everyone, user-friendly, and allows laypersons to predict the outcome of a case based on objective factors (e.g., not credibility or demeanor assessments), it could dramatically impact the litigation market. Why should a small business pour $40,000.00 — $100,000.00 into an emotionally-draining and lengthy case, if a reliable algorithm predicts it will lose? Yes, there will always be other reasons to litigate: righteous anger at a business competitor, a broader strategy at work, institutional reasons to fight, and relying on factors a Watson IBM type program can’t account for (at least at this time). But seeing a 23.3% likelihood of winning your case would have to be a sobering moment for many potential litigants.

    “If all a lawyer does is conduct research and write memos then he or she is not adding value.” Here, I disagree. Watson IBM would locate on-point cases, organize sections on legal-standards, maybe even apply law to facts. But will it craft pleadings with the flare, or persuasive power, of a talented writer? Doubtful. It seems to me as likely to do that as it is to write brilliant novels, just based on a series of inputs. And if that’s the case, maybe potential novelists — along with everyone else in the workforce who isn’t a narrow type oof business-owner or laborer, or a technologist — should worry for their career prospects.

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