Machines are Coming to Law (and it’s a Good Thing)

Machines are coming to displace lawyers, and bar regulation will not stop them. The results will be good for consumers but mixed for lawyers. Superstars may be helped, but journeymen lawyers face a less favorable future.

Russ Pearce and I have detailed the present and future effects of machine intelligence in a just published article, The Great Disruption.  In this post I will summarize the way machine intelligence is going to encroach on lawyers’ practices.

Machine intelligence is powered by Moore’s law—the doubling of computer power every eighteen months. For a long a time, computers were not powerful enough to have wide ranging effects on law, but that is now changing. And once computer power invades a domain,  things can change very fast. As we note:

It is important to recognize two central propositions about the progress of machine intelligence. First, before the combination of hardware, software, and connectivity progresses to a certain point, machine intelligence represents no substitute for human activity. For example, decades after computers were invented, they presented no challenge to an average chess player, let alone grand masters. But once machine intelligence reaches a level where it becomes competitive with humans, it continues to improve, soon surpassing human skills. Second, because increases in the power of computing are exponential rather than linear, computers may be able to undertake complicated legal tasks relatively sooner than it initially took computers to do simpler legal tasks. For instance, in 2004, not a single autonomous vehicle drove farther than eight miles on a course through the desert. But before the middle of the next decade, researchers predict that driverless cars will transport passengers in highway and urban driving.

Specifically, five areas of legal practice will be transformed by machine intelligence. First, document review for litigation will be conducted almost entirely by machines using predictive algorithms. Second, legal search will get better, telling lawyers what cases to cite in which courts. Third, Moneyball will come to law: lawyers will use predictive analytics rather than hunches to foretell the course of litigation. Fourth, documents will be increasingly generated by machines not persons. Fifth, in the more distant future, machines will provide the first drafts of briefs, as they are already providing simple articles for newspapers.

The effects will be wide ranging and good for consumers, if not for most lawyers.

The areas of legal practice on the cusp of change through legal search—discovery, search, document generation of both forms and briefs, and predictions of case outcomes—comprise the bulk of tasks in many legal practices. As a result, those who engage in the routine elements of such services will face increasing competition from machines. Moreover, as machine intelligence commoditizes many aspects of law, information technology will accelerate greater transparency that will, in turn, accelerate such lawyers’ loss of market power over legal services. Most obviously, the transparency will come in the form of consumers’ increased ability to compare the prices of legal services

The larger lesson here is the technological advances generally reduce inequality in consumption by  helping the middle class and poor.   Legal services were too expensive for many of their needs previously. Innovation through machine intelligence will soon bring a quality of service that they could not previously afford. In the future, it will bring a level of service  now available only to the rich.  In many ways, we are become more, not less equal.