In real life, WC works as a lawyer for a private firm. So it was with some alarm WC learned recently he is in danger of being replaced by a computer; specifically, by an expert system.
Farhad Manjoo, writing in Slate, predicts that lawyers, along with many professionals, will be replaced by expert systems. In discovery – the exchange of information after a lawsuit is filed and before trial – expert systems have already replaced young lawyers in examining documents. Manjoo sees that specialized case as the start of a sea change.
Maybe. For some of WC’s colleagues, an IBM Selectric typewriter would be an upgrade in legal skills. Not all law school graduates are good lawyers. And some specialties, like representing debtors in bankruptcy cases, are very nearly automated already. If WC were a young pup, he’d be trying to write the software to perform those near-rote tasks.
If expert systems can replace lawyers, for a long time it’s going to be in the rote and near-rote aspects of the profession. Divorce cases arguing over property distribution or the amount of child support, for example. By contrast, the current state of automated commercial transaction software is pretty pathetic. The documents it generates are full of holes.
There are two axioms in law that are going to plague expert systems. First, the devil is in the details. It’s the questions you don’t ask the clients, the odd little fact patterns and the details you have to pry out of the clients and witnesses that will make it hard for expert systems to really practice law.
Second, the “edge cases” are where lawyers earn their keep. The “edge cases” are the ones where the legal signposts are murky, where there aren’t clear statutes or controlling cases. It’s hard to see expert systems supplanting legal experience there any time soon.
At least WC doesn’t think it will happen before he retires… WC wonders if there is money to be made in writing blogs? Meh. Not on the evidence.