2016 year in review: Bring on the bots!

This is the second post in a five-part series where I review the main legal news and technology covered in 2016. See the others here.

2016 is officially the year of the bot. Facebook launched its messenger chatbot integration and spawned a whole bot development ecosystem. Microsoft inauspiciously launched and then shut down its AI Twitter chatbot Tay to substantial PR and internet fanfare.

The deluge of coverage on bots also included a number of pieces on AI and other bots that are poised to dramatically change the landscape of work in their industries – everything from robots in Amazon’s factories to driverless cars trucks and buses, to wait for staff at a restaurant.

There was an emergence of bots in legal in 2016 too. 19-year-old Joshua Browder launched his parking ticket bot DoNotPayVenture Beat covered the Facebook messenger bot Visabot to helping immigrants with their legal issues and vowing to “help immigrants make America great again,” and Kira announced a significant partnership with Deloitte (to “drive the adoption of artificial intelligence in the workplace”).

To bot or not to bot?

All the press on bots spurred a debate in the legal community about robot competition with human lawyers and I, for one, say: “Bring on the (ro)bots!”

Computers and technology can engage in sophisticated reasoning more accurately and consistently than humans. Five (five!) years ago, an e-discovery attorney and a computer science professor published an article in the Richmond Law Review that demonstrated that e-discovery are both more efficient and can yield results that are superior to traditional manual discovery in terms of both recall and precision.

But we don’t need studies to prove that technology can do many things better than humans. We see it in everyday life. Would anyone argue that calculators can’t handle computation better than most humans? Who thinks cash machines can’t count bills more effectively than humans? Airplanes can’t take off and land themselves, yet, but they handle most everything in between. Cars are already trusted to park themselves.

Legal services are no exception. Most lawyers are already convinced of the power and value of technology-assisted legal research. Millennials: did you know that lawyers used to Shepardize without the internet and that legal research existed before Google? The sheer number of research startups (Ravel, Casetext, Judicata, and others) attests to the maturity and value of the legal research market. Similarly, the broad adoption of technology in law practice itself from word processing, to email and beyond firmly establishes there are things that computers can do more effectively than can lawyers or other legal professionals. Moving into more modern and provocative territory, lawyer scourge LegalZoom has effectively demonstrated that technology can be used to provide the right form to the right consumer at the right time and help them fill them out. Or look at Avvo with 8 million legal questions and answers in its question and answer forum. I’ve not verified this but I’d suggest that the Avvo Q&A forum is the largest repository of freely, publicly, available legal information (certainly the most in question and answer format) that’s ever existed. Technology has already changed a good part of legal services.

They can’t do it all

Robots aren’t creative. They can’t see unique and compelling connections between otherwise disparate ideas. They can’t devise a new or clever way to address the legal issues in an emerging technology. They can’t stand in front of a jury and argue with passion and heart. They can’t empathize with a client dealing with a challenging emotional, business, or personal issue.

And this is great. Because the robot revolution isn’t about doing things better and faster than humans can do, it’s about specialization. It’s about freeing the humans up to do things that they do better than robots. Lawyers have spent years of their lives honing the powerful computers in their heads to do all those things that robots can’t – to be creative, to empathize, to advocate, and to make connections between disparate ideas. By ceding routine repetitive work to technology, lawyers can focus on the more fulfilling unique activities that they are better positioned to do.

More significantly, by outsourcing these simple routinized tasks to robots lawyers will provide clients more accurate efficient service. Saving the client money is not a core tenet of legal professional ethics but not lying to the client is. While it’s important to do one’s best work for a client to tell a client that the best way to handle simple routinized work is to use humans on a billable hour basis when it’s overwhelmingly clear that such work is more accurately and effectively done by a computer seems shading the truth at best. It’s certainly in a client’s best interest to use technology and, as others have argued, could at some point in the future be a breach of one’s ethical duties not to.

The age of bots and AI is upon us. Whether AI will serve to only enhance what lawyers do or whether it takes on some of the higher reasoning-type functions in which lawyers regularly engage remains to be seen. But robots will always be able to handle the stuff lawyers don’t want to do – the routinized simple work – better than humans while leaving the innately human things like empathy and creativity to humans. Automation will also create better more efficient client experiences. So, for lawyer well-being, for client well-being, for the well-being of the legal services sector in 2016 and beyond I say: “Bring on the robots!”