A Step Closer to IBM Watson in the Law?

Are we getting closer to machines in the practice of law? In his blog post “Meet your new lawyer, IBM Watson,” Ron Friedmann describes a meeting between IBM senior management and top-tier law firm CIOs at last week’s ILTA conference. He says:

It sounds like IBM intends Legal Watson to replace junior associates or at least perform much of their work (see also The Future of LawAmerican Lawyer, Aug 2014). Legal Watson’s success depends on the answers to three questions:

  1. What information – and how much – does Watson need to ingest and, to the extent necessary, who will tune or train it?
  2. If Watson ingests enough and is tuned, will it exercise good legal judgement? That is, can it actually replace some or all of what junior associates do?
  3. If its judgement is good, what is the market strategy? That is, who will use it and why?

It was only about 3 1/2 years ago that Simon Fodden talked about Watson here on Slaw. I wonder if he had any thought about Watson having a role in the practice of law? It would have seemed so unlikely.

Friedmann does a good job of speculating whether this would be possible and what it would take. What do you think–how far will automation go?


  1. Watson “exercising good legal judgement” should not be confused with Watson “judging”. The latter would scare the *** out of me as it would mean we leave judgement to algorithms and that would raise the question of legitimacy of the algorithm. Apart of who’s be capable to decide on this one – we’d be simply stupid to allow it to happen as the one thing IT has proven since its existence is: SW can fail. Well, yes humans, too, but hunans are being challenged – you ever tried to challenge a wrong calculation made by a computer at e.g. a bank?

    But exercising judgement in the sense to give a limited number if options with data supporting why which option seems to be preferrable for a senior lawyer to ponder upon? Absolutely (well, if Watson delivers against its promise).

    The question then – how will then in future a junior ever develop into a seasoned, experienced junior and NOT be dependent on Watson? I.e. how do we keep quality on upper ground? That is a riddle to be solved.

    (Just think about cashiers at any grocery with a bill of, let’s say $13.86 and you turn in $14.11 because you just want to have a quarter sitting back in your pocket – how many people will give you a weird look and type 14.11 into the cashier, to then get 25Cent to be returned… is that the type of senior lawyer you want to rely on?)

  2. You raise some good questions, Peter.

    I think of how dependent we are on calculators. Or, more accurately, calculator apps on our smart phones. Speaking of cashiers, this reminds me of my recent visit to the store to buy one item. In Canada we have a sales tax that is added to the sale price of products at the cashier. I handed the cashier exact change before she told me the amount. “You must have bought this before” she said to me. I said, “No, I did the math.” She was very surprised I had calculated the amount in my head without using my iphone.

    If we have become this dependent on calculators, I do think you are right, there are things juniors would typically not learn.

    Allow me to play devil’s advocate: What problem would this cause? Why would this be a concern?

  3. Well, to me there are two reasons this being a concern
    a) we still all learn how to do the math but lose practice over time. While being slow, we still can get to the grounds of the calculation. And this with math being the most exact science we have. Now, if Watson is inevitable ‘cheaper’ than juniors, who is going to pay for their practicing which is to me the very heart to ever become a senior (that’s probably true for math also when taking the expert as the benchmark).
    b) a math calculation ultimately is easy to be proven as wrong. But how with legal judgement? Who is going to do it? What would be the cost associated to do so? Who then will have the power/support/cash to challenge the ‘bug’ in the algorithm? While this is a more generic issue, too (better lawyers, more cost, more cash needed), if you fight a computer who turns out “judgments” in the hundreds an hour (conservative assumption) it simply gets a societal dimension.

    But not saying this speaks against Watson per se – it is as with any technology: application matters. Important to have the discourse beforehand trying to avoid/fence misdevelopments.

  4. Ah, and another thought: Watson might help to train juniors. One might even think doing a “Watson challenge”: prize to the juniors, who find the flaws. That in turn would train Watson, if I’ve understood the technology well enough.

    But however smart Watson may ever become: never we should give into simple convenience letting the math to it. It needs constant “testing” and for those challenging its judgement: in dubio pro reo.

  5. IBM Watson raises a more important question that is outside of “How does it affect Lawyers?” Watson is going to be a disruptive innovation. The idea of a disruptive innovation was outlined by Clay Christensen in the mid 90’s. Essentially, it states that new technology is applied outside the normal market, and as it develops, it enters into a mature market and overcomes it (more here http://www.claytonchristensen.com/key-concepts/).

    The future will start with self-reps entering into the legal world prepared with ‘lawyer’ quality legal documents and arguments. Imagine a self-rep in a family law court with all documents prepared properly, outlined legal arguments that are well reasoned, and a guide to how to act within court. Not only that, Watson will be your lawyer with you in court. You can ask live questions and within seconds have the solution right in front of you.
    As a JD/MBA student, I see the potential for solving lower end legal services, and then develop the product to deal with complex legal services. The first step of Watson will be how to ensure it does a good job assisting a self-rep. It will do a good job, and when it enters the market small firms will struggle.