John O. McGinnis, a Con law professor at Northwestern, put out a spectacular article in City Journal called "Machines v. Lawyers" laying out some of the disruptive technologies bearing down on the legal practice. To quote at length:
Law is, in effect, an information technology—a code that regulates social life. And as the machinery of information technology grows exponentially in power, the legal profession faces a great disruption not unlike that already experienced by journalism, which has seen employment drop by about a third and the market value of newspapers devastated. The effects on law will take longer to play themselves out, but they will likely be even greater because of the central role that lawyers play in public life.
The five categories ripe for change and automation are, according to McGinnis:
1) E-Discovery, where programs will be able to comb through huge numbers of documents and pluck out the relevant data automatically, rather than relying on associates by the bullpens-full;
2) Smart searching, which will eliminate user error, slash extensive research times , and automatically find the applicable precedent for any question of law;
3) Improved templates, which will make everything (pleadings, motions, applications, wills, contracts-- seriously, everything) cheaper and easier;
4) Automated brief and memorandum drafting, though likely with final drafts still done by flesh and blood for the time being. News articles like this one are already being written by computers, so I'd argue that this technology, which McGinnis calls "a distant prospect," is closer than he think. Earlier this month, in fact, IBM debuted a new feature of its Watson technology, which can now review millions of existing positions instantly and argue for and against them;
5) Litigation analytics, or as McGinnis puts it: " 'moneyball' is coming to law." This is the use of big data to predict the outcome of litigation rather than relying on the gut and experience of seasoned (see: expensive) attorneys.
Are these five technologies ready for wide-spread use? Is it really disruptive technology if we can accurately dissect its impact years before it arrives? Isn't disruptive technology just that-- disruptive? Or maybe the slow nature of law makes the field an exception. Time will tell!
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