What would you think if you heard that a bunch of people had gone into one of the world’s greatest libraries, sliced the spines off all the books, physically cut the guts out of them, and then fed the loose pages into a machine?
In a spectacular act of self-mutilation, Harvard Law School, whose library is unmatched except by the Library of Congress, has done just that. In its astonishing “Free the Law” project, Harvard has teamed up with a California start-up called Ravel Law to digitize every state, federal, territorial and tribal judicial decision since colonial times by feeding over 40 million pages physically cut from the books shelved in the Harvard Law Library into a high-speed digital scanner.
Watching this incredible scanner is like watching one of those bank bill-counting machines riffle through a stack of Jacksons, except in this case what’s being riffled is the core and evolution of American legal knowledge, a searchable database of case law that eventually will be offered free on the Internet, allowing instant retrieval of vital records that now often must be paid for (Ravel Law hopes to offer, for a fee, more advanced analytical tools).
What is emerging, at the cost of millions of dollars to create, is “data driven research” that provides case analytics, judge analytics and search visualization. Initially, this enormous database — and not just limited search results — will be shared with scholars and not-for-profits that want to develop specialized applications. After eight years, the lid comes off, and the database will be available to anyone for any purpose.
The current big subscription companies such as Westlaw and LexisNexis that charge subscribers for digitized access to case law claim not to be alarmed by the Ravel/Harvard alliance, saying that they offer access to a wider range of relevant legal information and new ways to analyze it.
A Paradigm Shifts
In other words, technology is taking us beyond research to the applications of that research. Indeed, there is a bloom in legal assistance technologies that create powerful legal “bots” applying data-mining technology to publicly available legal documents. One bot predicts how specific judges are likely to rule in certain kinds of cases, for example, and another analyzes thousands of state and federal cases using crowd-sourcing.
All these super-efficient data harvesters can gather and organize data in more efficient ways, but imagine what would happen if they could provide insights about what information means, not just what it is. That’s what AI does.
Elementary, My Dear Game Changer
By now, you’ve probably seen the TV ads for IBM’s Watson, perhaps wondering what all the shouting’s about. As IBM puts it, “Watson is a technology platform that uses natural language processing and machine learning to reveal insights from large amounts of unstructured data.” Put differently, Watson is a “cognitive system” — a link between human decision-making and computers — that searches an entire field of inquiry at digital hyper-speed, analyzes and synthesizes all the data it finds, evaluates the quality of the evidence it has gathered, uses acquired information to understand and interpret complex questions, reveals insights, patterns and relationships, and then ranks and prioritizes potential answers … all while also learning and teaching itself to expand its own capabilities.
You’re right if you think this sounds like the world’s smartest associate when these capabilities are applied to law, one who works at top speed 24/7, never gets tired, doesn’t require the input of pizza or caffeine, and doesn’t worry about making partner. Watson is much more than just a giant search engine; above and beyond its simple information-gathering ability, its functioning exercises a form of judgment. Think about that.
The implications for lawyer job security at all levels, but particularly for younger lawyers, should be obvious. Today’s law students and associates are right to be alarmed at the prospect of entry-level — and perhaps higher — legal work being Wat- sonized. Watson and its spawn threaten a similar paradigm shift in legal economics and law firm-client relationships, as clients flock to faster and more cost-effective approaches to basic legal issues and decisions. When and if the Watson Gang fully takes hold, clearly the whole human-based work allocation and economics of the legal profession are going to take a heavy shot to the head.
In May, The Washington Post wrote that one major law firm, Baker & Hostetler, had “hired” ROSS Intelligence, a “robot lawyer” and “the world’s first artificially intelligent attorney,” to serve as a “legal researcher” for the firm.” ROSS, by the way, is powered by Watson. Clearly, something was trending here, with implications for the employment security of younger lawyers, even though BakerHotstetler hastened to assure the world that “ROSS is not a way to replace our attorneys — it is a supplemental tool to help them move faster, learn faster, and continually improve.” Right. And if you believe that …
And the Brits may be stealing the march, as such major firms as Linklaters, Pinsent Masons, Dentons and smaller firms like Hodge, Jones & Allen are either using AI or creating their own AI startups.
So far, in law ROSS has been pitched more as a high-speed search engine — fast but dumb — than as a decision-maker or solution engine, but as one former commercial litigator put it, “that’s just because the ROSS people want to scare us to death bit by bit, and not all at once.”
Oops, Not So Fast
Outside of law, Watson already has become an ecosystem of apps and iterations embraced enthusiastically in medicine, healthcare and patient care, travel, life planning, fashion, cooking, Sesame Street learning theory, flower delivery and all manner of statistical analysis. After all, as Google’s success shows us, who wouldn’t want to know everything about everything in one’s field?
Well, lawyers, that’s who. Or at least some lawyers. The logic of applying something like Watson to a universe of statutes, regulations, cases, decisions, articles, legal history, comparison/conflict of laws, law firms, legal departments and legal compensation appears obvious. Law should be fertile ground for Watson, right?
Until recently, however, the AI invasion of law had encountered a major barrier. Watson and its ilk require unfettered access to data to work their magic. But unlike medicine and other fields where all the data are there for the grabbing and disparate sources are happy to throw their data points into the stew, in law many of the reported decisions and information sources are controlled by those big subscription services. Though the primary legal documents are formally in the public domain, many presently are not digitized, and they contract with the subscription services to digitize emerging information. Large law firms may pay millions of dollars a year to services like Westlaw and LexisNexis to research cases and trace intellectual pathways.
Understandably, these vendors are unwilling to provide all their data to Watson for free, on the apparent theory that if you can’t beat the enemy, maybe you can starve it to death. So at least in the world of law, has technology been stymied? If Ravel Law and the digitizing of the Harvard Law Library is any indication, not for long, brother.
A Hot Date, Indeed
That’s right, imagine this unprecedented meeting of the minds: Watson’s mind with Harvard’s library — or similar alliances or even marriages between their spawn and their relatives. What more need we say? Expect rapid exponential gains in both the sophistication and the efficiency of legal analysis and legal decision-making. Expect ancient edifices crumbling. The paradigm shift is upon us.
Editorial Board member Pamela Woldow is a Certified Master Coach. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The views expressed in the article are those of the authors and not necessarily the views of their clients or other attorneys in their firm.