Law jobs in Jeopardy

There’s been a lot of talk this week about Watson’s appearance on Jeopardy! — and its win.  Now, the pundits are trying to digest what the implications will be now that Watson has already been hired as a physician’s assistant.

What, specifically, does this mean for lawyers?  Robert C. Weber, a senior VP and general counsel at IBM, breaks it down for us over at over at the National Law Journal:

Imagine a new kind of legal research system that can gather much of the information you need to do your job — a digital associate, if you will. With the technology underlying Watson, called Deep QA, you could have a vast, self-contained database loaded with all of the internal and external information related to your daily tasks, whether you’re preparing for litigation, protecting intellectual property, writing contracts or negotiating an acquisition. Pose a question and, in milliseconds, Deep QA can analyze hundreds of millions of pages of content and mine them for facts and conclusions — in about the time it takes to answer a question on a quiz show.

But won’t this mean fewer jobs for lawyers?  Oh no, reassures Mr. Weber:

Deep QA won’t ever replace attorneys; after all, the essence of good lawyering is mature and sound reasoning, and there’s simply no way a machine can match the knowledge and ability to reason of a smart, well-educated and deeply experienced human being. But the technology can unquestionably extend our capabilities and help us perform better.

Humanity — I mean — lawyers win, huh?  This is great!  Where can I put Watson to work?

The technology might even come in handy, near real-time, in the courtroom. If a witness says something that doesn’t seem credible, you can have an associate check it for accuracy on the spot.

Wait a minute — I thought you said that we’ll always need lawyers?  But if using Watson/Deep QA is just as easy as running a Google search against a witness on the stand, why do you need to have an associate perform it?  Associates are expensive, or, at least, used to be.  Why not a paralegal?  Why not someone even cheaper, with even less training?  Are you sure it has to be an actual lawyer?  (Besides, Weber also tells us that “We’re pretty sure [Watson] would do quite well in a multistate bar exam!”)

Perhaps when he said Watson “won’t ever replace attorneys,” Mr. Weber meant that Watson won’t ever replace someone like himself:  a successful, established, general counsel at a Fortune 500.  You know, the sort of person who passes off his “research” to an “associate.”  Or whomever.  Or whatever.

I’m not buying it, Weber (neither is Above the Law, for whatever that’s worth).  Watson is going to put a lot of lawyers out on the street, which is precisely the conclusion that Andy Kessler comes to over at the Wall Street Journal.  In Kessler’s colorful employment taxonomy, lawyers are classified as “sponges”:

Sponges are those who earned their jobs by passing a test meant to limit supply. According to [the WSJ], 23% of U.S. workers now need a state license….All this does is legally bar others from doing the same job, so existing workers can charge more and sponge off the rest of us.

But eDiscovery is the hottest thing right now in corporate legal departments. The software scans documents and looks for important keywords and phrases, displacing lawyers and paralegals who charge hundreds of dollars per hour to read the often millions of litigation documents. Lawyers, understandably, hate eDiscovery.

We can argue whether this is a good for society overall (or not).  But come on, Weber.  Don’t say that Watson “won’t ever replace attorneys” when what you really mean is that “I personally am going to be able to keep my job.”

0 thoughts on “Law jobs in Jeopardy

    • Adam, I’m not sure I agree with all of Kelly’s (rather blithe) takeaway. He posits: “Once you are Turing’d it is much easier to believe other occupations which we humans used to do uniquely, can be done by computers. You tend to be open to disruptive technology in all parts of your life.”

      I’ll allow the former and dispute the latter. Once you’ve been “Turing’d”, of course you believe that it can happen again in other fields. But whether this makes you more “open to disruptive technology in all parts of your life” has to depend — at least somewhat — on how “Turing-ing” turned out for you. If you survive with your job intact (like the computer scientists mentioned in the Technium article or the IBM general counsel in the opinion piece I link to), sure, things are great. You make the same (or more) money but have to deal with less grunt work.

      If however, you get ousted from the job you had (like some computer scientists) or never get to put your foot in the door in the first place (like a lot of unemployed law graduates right now), your view of the “Turing’d” process might be…less sanguine.

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  1. Today on “Think”, a local show on the Dallas NPR affiliate KERA, Krys Bord interviewed Marshall Brain of “How Stuff Works, Inc” who is giving a lecture tonight at UTA titled “Your Spare Time Is Your Most Important Time”. He talked about Watson and thinks that the implications are that computers will eventaully replace all human workers in every aspect of life (as they are already taking over the most mundane of jobs, such as chech-out at retail stores,such as Walmart and Home Depot) and we , as humans, will be on perpetual vacation. He thinks this is a great thing. I guess old geezers like myself who are workaholics and get nervous with too much time on our hands are done for.

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