For a concise but thorough and insightful summary of how machine learning technology will transform the legal profession, and a sobering prediction of the winners and losers, check out The Great Disruption: How Machine Intelligence Will Transform the Role of Lawyers in the Delivery of Legal Services. Written by John McGinnis of Northwestern University Law School and Russel Pearce of Fordham Law School, this is a no-nonsense assessment of where the legal profession is headed thanks to the really smart people who are working on really smart machines. The key message is to abandon all notion that the progress of machine learning technology, and its incursion into the legal industry, will be linear. For quite a while after they were invented, computers didn’t seem that “smart.” They assisted us. But the progress in computational capacity was moving exponentially forward all the time. It is only recently that computers have begun to go beyond assisting us to doing the things we do as competently as we do, or better (e.g., IBM’s Watson). The exponential progress is not going to stop here–the difference is that henceforth we will see computers leaving us behind rather than catching up.
The ability of machines to analyze and compose sophisticated text is already working its way into the journalism industry, and McGinnis and Pearce see law as the next logical target. They foresee five realms of legal practice as the prime domains for computers supplanting human lawyers: (1) discovery, which is well underway; (2) legal search technology advancing far beyond the Westlaw of today; (3) generation of complex form documents, such as Kiiac; (4) composing briefs and memos; and (5) predictive legal analytics, such as Lex Machina. All of these trends are well in motion already, and they are unstoppable.
All of this is a mixed bag for lawyers, as some aspects of these trends will allow lawyers to do their work more competently and cost-effectively. But the obvious underside of that is reduced demand for lawyers. So, who wins and who loses? McGinnis and Pearce identify several categories of winners (maybe the better term is survivors): (1) superstars who are empowered even more by access to the machines to help them deliver high stakes litigation and transactional services; (2) specialists in areas of novel, dynamic law and regulation subject to change, because the lack of patterns will make machine learning more difficult (check out EPA’s 645-page power plant emissions proposed regulation issued yesterday–job security for environmental lawyers!); (3) oral advocates, until the machines learn to talk; and (4) lawyers practicing in fields with high client emotional content, because machines don’t have personalities, yet. The lawyering sector hardest hit will be the journeyman lawyer writing wills, handling closings, reviewing documents, and drafting standard contracts, although some entrepreneurial lawyers will use the machines to deliver high-volume legal services for low and middle income clients who previously were shut out of access to lawyers.
Much of what’s in The Great Disruption can be found in longer, denser treatments of the legal industry, but McGinnis and Pearce have distilled the problem to its core and delivered a punchy, swift account like no other I’ve seen. I highly recommend it.