Robot Associates and the Future of Law

In the last 10 years, robotic surgical systems have revolutionized the way doctors approach minimally invasive surgery, especially laparoscopic and arthroscopic procedures. AI-enabled systems can also provide doctors with suggestions based on symptoms, learning from medical diagnoses and the outcomes of the symptoms. As with medicine, the field of law will be revolutionized in the coming years by the application of AI-enabled systems and networks to the practice of law.

Those systems are here today. Systems like ROSS, which is built on IBM’s cognitive computer Watson, are designed to read and understand natural language, develop theories of a case when asked questions, and conduct legal research. It is now being deployed by at least one major law firm to assist with Bankruptcy work.

In the near future, the ranks of associates will be filled with practice-specific “Robot Associates” – artificially intelligent virtual systems that are able to work 24/7 at “fixed rates” to assist in providing better quality service to clients. Thus, a partner working on a complex matter can call his “Robot Associate” and request that it “research and monitor all recent cases on software licensing under Section 365(n) of the Bankruptcy code involving a software as a cloud service provider and generate references and citations for review.” And, just like its human counterparts, the “Robot Associate” will learn from its experiences in order to gain greater efficiency and accuracy in assisting the partner. It’s not just law firms that will benefit from “Robot Associates.” It’s reasonably foreseeable that a General Counsel may elect to add “Robot Associates” to the in-house ranks to help contain legal expense.

The obvious promise of ROSS and similar systems is that they can provide greater efficiency in the provisioning of certain legal services. However, these systems can also serve to make legal services more accessible and affordable to the poor in our society. Thus, it’s reasonably foreseeable that a “Robot Associate” may one day handle some types of court filings. However, unlike medicine, law will always remain a social science. Thus, while these AI-enabled systems can assist practitioners, they cannot, and should not, replace the human dimension of our profession. Human beings can feel, touch, empathize, sympathize, and process highly complex situations in seeking to provide “justice.”

Lawyers using these “Robot Associates” need to be mindful of ethical considerations regarding the same. In particular, the American Bar Association recently amended the Model Rules of Professional Conduct to make clear that “competent lawyers must have some awareness of the basic features of technology” and further changed Comment 8 to clarify that minimum competence requires that attorneys keep abreast of changes in the law and practice, including “the benefits and risks associated with technology.”

Subject to these ethical guidelines, however, “Robot Associates” will be as meaningful to the practice of law in the future as robotic assistants are now in the practice of medicine.

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