In the Valley of the Shadow of Death: Trickle-Down Economics for Artificial Intelligence in Legal

All of the technology innovators in the legal sector are pushing artificial intelligence as the next big thing.  They’re talkin’ all about the robot takeover, and how, if solo and small firm lawyers don’t adapt or get out of the way, it’s curtains for them.  Only, solo and small firm lawyers just don’t give a shit.

I’m not taking sides here.  I understand where solo and small firm lawyers are coming from; I consult with those folks regularly, and I know that they have to be head-down on work, and on top of managing the practice, to make it all come together.  I also know that there are a lot of nifty things going on in terms of technology generally, and artificial intelligence specifically, in legal.  Heck, my guy Ed Walters even teaches a robotics course at Georgetown; the only other person to have done that was Elroy Jetson, in the year 2274.

No, I’m not taking sides.  I’m standing in the valley, looking up at either cliff-face, watching the shouting take place.  From my vantage point, there are two commingled reasons for why the artificial intelligence revolution does not resonate as such with solo and small firm lawyers.

The problem tracks back to communication and economics.

In the first instance, solo and small firm lawyers are tired of being portrayed as Luddites.  They’re also sick of, especially in this economy, being threatened with job loss.  How many hundreds (thousands?) of articles have been written with the tagline ‘The End of Lawyers’?  If the standard approach is always: ‘You suck hard; and soon, you won’t have a job because you suck so hard’ — well, wouldn’t you tune out the noise, too?  The fact of the matter is that the real, creative work that attorneys do is not going be replaced anytime soon, nor should it be.  (I mean, do you really want to live in a society overrun with intelligent androids?  If you said yes, you probably didn’t watch the season finale of Westworld.)  The other John Mayer likes to talk about lawyers practicing ‘at the top of their law licenses’.  The truly creative work that lawyers do, the emotional intelligence they must exhibit in dealing with clients, those things are not going to be replicated by machines any time soon.  Lawyers working in those spaces will continue to succeed; and, they will be delighted when services arise that can ease their research burden, for example.  Neither do lawyers fear technology.  They’re comfortable with the technology they have, sure; but, that’s in large part because the concept of new technology (as it now exists) is fairly overwhelming to them.  Hell, I do this for a living, and I can’t keep up.  The truth is that law firm technology has advanced from the Model T to the 2017 Ford Mustang in about 10 years; and, if a law firm can’t choose from more than 100 cloud-based law practice management tools, when not even one existed a decade ago . . . well, what the fuck did you expect?  Solo and small firm lawyers have been asked to seamlessly pull a Captain America; and, then everyone is surprised when they can’t.  The new regulations respecting data protection and technology competence are not onerous; but, lawyers tend to believe they are, because they are trying to catch up at ludicrous speed.  Legislative and ethics authorities need to get better about addressing technology rules to laypersons; but, technology stalwarts need to figure out a way to more effectively translate their service offerings to the needs of solo and small firm attorneys, as those attorneys feel them.

In a larger sense, though, this is a question of economics.  As AI develops, someone needs to pay for the time and space developers need to refine their products.  That’s why a computer used to be larger than a small dinosaur and a terabyte of data now costs, like, 30 cents.  It makes sense that these services would be developed with the support of venture capital firms and large law firms.  It’s safe to ignore solo and small firm lawyers, when gathering a large-enough collective of them to support an artificial intelligence program would not be worth the time spent to unify it.

The ultimate questions is whether and how AI becomes useful to solo and small firm lawyers, rather than if it can be used to squeeze them further out of the market.  In the most perfect world that can be imagined, AI developed for large firms would, in fits and starts, begin to trickle down to solo and small firms, who would be able to access similar programs, at a more reasonable cost.  But, if that hasn’t happened with big data (and won’t still, for a while), what makes you think it’s going to happen with artificial intelligence?

Don’t get me started on driverless cars . . .

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Liner Notes

I blame the Moog synthesizer.

Daily Nightly’ by The Monkees