The Rise of Supercomputers – Why They Won’t Replace Lawyers Anytime Soon

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of speaking on a panel at the Minority Corporate Counsel Association (MCCA) CLE Expo, in San Diego, CA. My esteemed co-panelists included Bank of America‘s Core Cotton, HBR Consulting’s Lauren Chung and Womble, Carlyle’s Deborah Israel; all women at the height of their careers, and with whom I was honored to share the stage.

During our presentation, titled “Who Needs a Lawyer Anyway?,” we delved into the often confusing landscape surrounding a lawyer’s ethical duties and practical responsibilities when employing non-lawyers and non-practicing lawyers for various non-legal and quasi-legal functions.

Very early in the preparation stages of our panel, Deborah introduced the sub-topic “Who needs a Person Anyway?” and challenged us to consider the effect that technology continues to have on the practice of law, and what other changes are expected with the advent of Artificial Intelligence like IBM’s Watson.

IBM’s supercomputer, Watson, is an Artificial Intelligence which uses a cognitive framework to develop expertise in a specific subject, and enables a new partnership between people and computers. Watson responds to natural language, makes diagnoses, provides research to back its findings and gives options based on its own confidence level. In short, Watson continually learns and gets smarter. In 2011, Watson famously competed on the television show Jeopardy and beat two all–time champions! Other notable achievements include collaboration with Memorial Sloan Kettering to assist medical professionals and improve the quality of care delivered to cancer patients.

In 2015, Watson had a baby brother, ROSS, created by a group of students at the University of Toronto. ROSS is a super lawyer. ROSS knows every precedent in every jurisdiction, predicts outcomes within a certain degree of confidence, and even drafts memos! Naturally during our presentation, the questions, “Will ROSS replace lawyers?” and “What’s left for us to do?” came up. I felt the answer was clear. Since more than 99% of all data that exists today was created within the past two years, sifting through so much information has become more and more challenging. We shouldn’t be afraid of supercomputers like Watson and ROSS, as they actually help us find that smoking gun.

I thought my response was pretty clever until an audience member and veteran business litigator, Brent Clinkscale, offered up his brilliant observation. Clinkscale reminded us that there are some things that even the most sophisticated and intelligent machines can never be taught. Those are the same things that separate average lawyers from great lawyers – personality and persuasion, traits which only come with experience and human observation. ROSS can burn the midnight oil and draft a perfectly solid brief, take on all of the research, and may even put some junior lawyers out of work. However, ROSS cannot account for the very human whims of a judge and how they may affect a ruling. Neither ROSS nor any other AI possesses Clinkscale’s cool, charm and confidence. Those intangibles are the cornerstones of the venerated art of persuasion.

So, human lawyers will be needed… a little while longer.