Getting over technology

Since the start of the year, I’ve received three different media calls asking me about the role of artificial intelligence in the law. Partly to make good use of the notes I prepared for these calls, and partly so that I’ve got something written down to which I can send reporters with future inquiries of this type, here are some of my thoughts on the topic of technology in law practice.

The truest observation ever made about technology remains this one from American computer scientist Alan Kay: “Technology is anything that wasn’t around when you were born.” British author and technophile Douglas Adams famously expanded on Kay’s comment: “Anything that’s in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and just a natural part of the way the world works. Anything that’s invented when you’re between 15 and 35 is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. Anything invented after you’re 35 is against the natural order of things.”

Great game, weird book.

These two quotations should be borne in mind anytime you start talking about technology in law firms. Law firms are stuffed to the rafters with technology, and always have been. There’s the photocopier, for example — an extraordinary device, if you stop and think about it, and who talks anymore about how many monks it replaced? Email blew me away the first time I used it — you can send a written message to someone in the building next door, immediately! The telephone, for crying out loud — maybe the most revolutionary invention of the last 500 years, and now we let almost every incoming call go to voicemail. Since the time feathered quills and inkwells were first replaced by fountain pens, lawyers might have complained about every new technology, probably resisted it, but inevitably they accepted and assimilated it.

So it will be, soon enough, with artificial intelligence. I’m as amazed as you are by what can already be accomplished in legal services by machines equipped with cognitive reasoning, and how much more those machines certainly will accomplish in future. But right now, somewhere in your community, someone in her late teens is thinking about maybe applying to law school someday, and by the time she’s called to the Bar in 2027, AI-powered legal services will be normal. They’ll be routine. They’ll be boring. And our future lawyer will be less than 10 years away from grumbling about genetically engineered judges.

By all means, maintain a childlike sense of wonder about the evergreen miracles of technology as long as you can. Keep postponing and rescheduling your appointment with curmudgeonhood (I missed that train awhile back.) But at the same time, maybe the best thing we can all do to really absorb and apply the astonishing power of technology is to just get over it.

Let AI become normal. Wait for it to become routine — it probably won’t take as long as you think. But the longer we talk about the exciting but virtually indefinable term “artificial intelligence,” and the longer we tolerate the repeated use of “robot lawyers” with anything but self-aware irony, the longer it’s going to take us to make the necessary adjustments to our worldview and just get on with things.

If I could offer one reliable way to help speed along this adjustment, it would be this: Stop asking whether “AI will take away lawyers’ jobs.” Stop asking what AI will do to, or for, the legal profession. Stop thinking about AI from the perspective of the lawyer altogether and start thinking about it from the perspective of the client.

How will AI help clients? Will employing AI, or any burgeoning technology, help a client to get what it needs faster, less expensively, or at a higher degree of quality? Will the client get a better result — measured in outcome, experience, or resource allocation — using a new technology than would have been possible or probable with pre-existing tools and methods? If I’m at a legal tech trade show and I’m talking with an AI vendor, this is what I want to know, and I want numbers and case studies to back up the answers.

Because if there are AI tools out there that can deliver those foregoing outcomes to my clients, then I want them in my law practice, today, while I can still derive a competitive advantage from using them — before they’re widely available, before they’re commonplace, before they’re boring.

Ten to fifteen years from now, by the time our late-teens prospective lawyer is well into her career, many law firms could offer a branded, mobile, user-friendly application to which their clients subscribe, on a paid or even a complimentary basis. Clients would ask this application — out loud, with their voices — questions about how the law applies to a situation they’re facing, or what they should do in a circumstance in which they find themselves. They’d receive immediate, practical, and accurate answers from the application, close it up, and get on with what they’re doing.

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from the Magic School Bus.

Today, we’d consider that to be a significant, even sci-fi-level advancement (and make no mistake, we have a significant distance to go to get there). But by the time we do get there, it will be considered normal. “Yeah, that’s just the Answer App; all the firms have one now.” The great gift (and curse) of technology in the 21st century is how quickly it renders the magical commonplace. Law, which is so far behind technologically and has so much ground to make up, is going to experience that gift in an especially rapid-fire and visceral fashion.

So quit worrying about what technology will do to you and your firm. Start thinking instead about what it can do for your clients. Figuring out the second point will, in due course, take care of the first.

Foreshadowing: Look for a major announcement here at Law21 next Monday, March 20. In fact, I’d even say you should …. [puts on sunglasses] … book the date.

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