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Lawyers, Do Not Fail to Read “The Great Disruption”

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.


What You Get When 45 Law Students Brainstorm About Legal Futures

Last week my Law 2050 class moved into a group project phase. I’ve divided the 45 students into six groups. Each group is exploring a pair of legal future topics grouped under two themes: (1) emerging legal technologies and practice models, and (2) future legal practice scenarios. The six paired topics are:


Tech/Industry Theme

Practice Scenario Theme



Environment and energy


Legal process management

Social and demographic


Legal risk management

Economic and financial


Routinized and expert systems

Health and medicine


Legal prediction

Data and privacy


New legal markets Other technologies

Each group member prepared a proposed set of specific research projects fitting the group’s topics, and last week they pitched them to their groups. Each group selected 3-4 projects for each topic. They are exploring the viability of their tech/practice model selections and of their practice development selections. Later in the semester the groups will present their findings to the class as a whole.

Last week, the groups selected their final set of research projects and gave a quick summary to the class. I was quite impressed with the breadth and depth of their selections:

Future Practice Development Topics: synthetic organs, bitcoins, robotic surgery, student loan debt relief, Cloud computing, Google glass, 3-D printing, Dodd-Frank aftermath, crowdfunding,  sea level rise, cybersecurity standards, carbon sequestration, space law & asteroid mining, virtual real estate, ocean-based power sources, biometric identification, water rights issues, genetically pre-fabricated children, natural disaster law, AI decision making, majority-minority America, same sex marriage, LGBTQIA rights, mass human migration, the sharing economy.

Legal Tech and Practice Models: QuisLex, Yuson & Irvine, LPO security breach issues, rebundling of LPO functions, My Case, Onit, Clerky, Axiom, Lex Machina, Casetext, Clearspire, Lawyer Up, Jury Verdict Analyzer, Kiiac, Neota Logic, healthcare compliance software.

I’m looking forward to what they have to say about each of these!

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