A new survey finds that 35% of the leaders of large law firms can envision a law-focused version of IBM’s artificial intelligent computer Watson replacing first year associates in the next five to ten years. The survey (PDF), which polled the managing partners and chairs of 320 firms of 50+ attorneys, also shows that 47% of firm leaders see paralegals being replaced by technology in the same time frame.
If these results are taken at face value—as many in the legal press have done—the implications are patently absurd. A third of the leadership in one of the most ardently-staid professions think junior associates will be replaced by AI within the next decade? But if you look at the actual wording of the question, it paints a hazier picture. The survey, conducted by law firm consultants Altman Weil, noted Watson’s triumph over human contestants in a game of Jeopardy in 2011, and asked: “Can you envision a law-focused ‘Watson’ replacing any of the following timekeepers in your firm in the next 5 to 10 years?” (emphasis added). The options for respondents were: paralegals, first year associates, 2-3 year associates, 4-6 year associates, service partners, “yes, but not in 5-10 years,” and “computers will never replace human practitioners.” So perhaps 35% of respondents were actually saying they would see hiring fewer 1st year associates (thus “replacing any” associates) if artificial intelligence technology manages to take on some of the more rote tasks currently performed by junior associates. But that’s not the same as having junior associates phased out in favor of computers.
Perhaps the oddest part of the responses is that only 6.4% answered in the affirmative for 4-6 year associates, while 13.5% did so for service partners. Law firm management thinks service partners are more replaceable than senior associates!
While the survey may work the legal media into a bit of a tizzy, I think the results are mostly a yawn. Law firms already use computer assisted document review in large cases, and their use has been endorsed by courts for several years. Certainly technology may help junior associates do their jobs more efficiently, and it could even take a significant bite out of the contract attorney and legal outsourcing markets, but I highly doubt it will markedly affect law firm practitioners in the near future.
I think K&L Gates chair Peter Kalis had the best response to the survey results, saying the law firm leaders probably misunderstood the technological requirements of true artificial intelligence. Kalis quipped, “One-hundred percent of law firm leaders don’t know anything about AI.”
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