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.”