We Are All Worrying About the Wrong Thing

While lawyers in Canada were debating whether licensed paralegals should have a limited role in family law, and before that contemplating entity-based regulation, alternative business structures, and the articling crisis, change was already happening without them.

This week the century-old American law firm, BakerHostetler, announced they have hired their first digital lawyer, ROSS, the artificial intelligence system based on IBM’s Watson. What can ROSS do for this firm, one of the largest in the country?

According to the ROSS website, it can provide a highly relevant answer to a question posed in natural language. You don’t get thousands of results to pore through, and you don’t have to use keywords for your query.

The system is being used, for now, just in the bankruptcy group of the firm. But ROSS is probably the fastest hire the firm has ever had, being able to answer billions of documents to respond to questions, citing any answers it provides.

ROSS is likely also the firm’s best hire, as it only gets better with time and automatically tracks new developments in the law.

ROSS doesn’t take washroom breaks, doesn’t need to sleep, and will never go on vacation. In other words, ROSS is every law firm’s dream research lawyer.

It’s no surprise then that there are already other firms lining up to hire ROSS. Oh, did I forget to mention, ROSS is able to work for several different firms simultaneously without conflict – in fact ROSS can work for all of them.

We’ve become accustomed to saying that artificial intelligence won’t replace lawyers, and that’s still somewhat true. What ROSS is doing though is replacing the function that many junior lawyers play within law firms.

So you’re worried about all the Canadians who go to the UK and Australia to go to law school, then return home to do their NCA exams and get called to the bar through the LPP?

Or you’re concerned that licensed paralegals are eating into your practice in Ontario as the small claims jurisdiction is raised?

Maybe you’re concerned that the outside infusion of capital from non-lawyers will change the underlying fabric of our profession too much, too quickly.

Well, you’re too late.

BakerHostetler’s move this week announces that the future is already here.

Wait, you’re saying, we’re always years behind developments in other countries. Canadian law firms have years before this affects us.

Maybe you didn’t realize that ROSS’ co-founders are all from Toronto. Maybe you didn’t realize that ROSS CEO, Andrew Arruda, has a Canadian law degree.

Like so many Canadian stars who made it big in America (think Justin Bieber, Pamela Anderson, Dan Akroyd, Neve Campbell, etc.), Arruda is a legal rockstar bound to make it big there too.

And yes, he’ll come home with with his new associate for your firm as well. Or your competitor’s.

Your choice.


  1. David Collier-Brown

    Yes! “Person of interest” really *is* a documentary.
    I want to live long enough to work with Ross and “she”.

  2. I’m not worried about the wrong thing, and this is the last thing I am worried about. Worrying about the sky falling, in vogue for decades now, is probably not a productive use of my time. I know a little (actually, thanks to my research background, a fair bit) about AI and if someone wants to create an artificial tax lawyer I wish them every success!

  3. Good post, Omar. Do you have more specifics about how conflicts are avoided?
    I understand that Watson (and ROSS) can run multiple installations without sharing data between firms, but I also know that Watson operates in the cloud. Do you know anything in particular about the terms of licence that protect firms?

  4. Nate,

    Not in particular. My reference was in context of multiple installations as you describe above.

    At present it’s only in a single firm. I suspect the second and third will want greater insight into any such terms.

  5. Omar, loved your piece. My 5/19 tweet: Robots, unregulatable, are poised to leapfrog over #paralegals in BC. Not good for #A2J. @A2JBC you can fix this. @LawSocietyofBC

  6. The problem with Ross:

    a) The largest area of unmet need is family law;

    b) Ross analyses and applies facts and law in an impartial and logical fashion to provide a recommended result;

    c) With the Ross result in hand, you will be seeking to impose a logical application of facts and principals upon a process which is largely focused on illogical political and emotional factors – likely leaving Ross to blow a few microchips like Family Lawyer PTSD