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Will WATSON Start Putting Lawyers in “Jeopardy”?

Watching Watson compete on Jeopardy this week was amazing, notwithstanding the odd Final Jeopardy foul-up on Tuesday night. (Watson oddly answered “What is Toronto????” to a Final Jeopardy question that was titled “U.S. Cities.”)

A logical explanation for the cause of the mistake was given, though my inner paranoia prefers to fantasize a more Hal-ish rationale. As in, maybe Watson learned the ability to sandbag a little, to lull us into thinking what we certainly all want to believe anyway: in the end, we’re still smarter.   We’ll always have a leg up on the nuances.

Science fiction aside, the implications of this are just amazing.   But how about this:  could Watson replace a lawyer?   The discussion was recently opened by Robert C. Weber, IBM’s SVP, Legal and Regulatory Affairs, and General Counsel and by Ashby Jones at the WSJ.

While the profession is still struggling with the evolution and adoption of the kind of “disruptive” technology that Richard Susskind and others have already been talking about for years, there is technology under active development that is already far ahead of that.

Legal publications notwithstanding, “cutting edge” technology isn’t really cloud computing, document assembly, and innovative time and billing software. Those are examples of technology that is, for the most part, already well-tested, useful, cost-effective and completely ready for widespread adoption.

Cutting edge technology is, for example, technology that’s working on a computer that can pass the multistate bar exam, independently gather facts to build and assemble legal arguments, and be able to impeach a witness at trial by instantly comparing statements against thousands of other items admitted into a trial record.

Weber said: “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.”

Well, that’s true now.  We’d like to believe that’ll always be true. Who knows. However, we do know one thing for certain: technology always continues to march forward.   Technology always wins.

A big potential takeaway here for the legal profession (and its regulating bodies) is to strive to work hand-and-hand with the teams that are designing, developing, and rolling out new technology – as opposed to (consistently?) being in the trail position, needing to be nudged or dragged forward.

How often do we find situations where a lawyer has adopted technology at a pace dramatically ahead of the pace of her clients, forcing her clients to scramble to catch up? The answer: not often enough.

Lawyers who quickly adapt and take advantage of new technologies as they emerge will undoubtedly succeed, adapting to changes and leveraging them to the benefit of their clients.   There are a lot of these pioneers emerging already – many in the solo and small firm ranks (we’re lucky enough to have many ourselves as subscribers), but there’s room for more.