To Law2023 — And Beyond

Three years ago, IBM demonstrated a breakthrough achievement in artificial intelligence by pitting a computer system against two human players on the quiz show Jeopardy! The computer named Watson trounced Jeopardy! superstars Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, and it has only grown smarter and faster in the years since.

Today, IBM senior vice president and general counsel Robert Weber thinks the technology may soon have major implications for the practice of law. According to a recent article in The American Lawyer, the newest version of the computer, Watson Debater, is capable of generating informed, plain-language arguments supporting or opposing particular viewpoints. Weber said Watson’s “encyclopedic knowledge” and “inexhaustible work ethic” could one day enable the system to take over many legal tasks currently performed by senior associates.

The findings of Law2023 establish that tech-enabled automation of basic legal functions will prove to be a game changer in the legal industry, but Watson’s potential could give a hint of what lies beyond 2023. Clients are already accustomed to quickly drawing up wills, leases and LLC filings using Web-based tools. A decade from now, will they be ready to take a computer’s advice on an optimal legal strategy based on a few seconds of data processing?

Stasia Kelly, U.S. co-managing partner of DLA Piper, told The American Lawyer that the success of next-generation artificial intelligence in the legal industry will hinge on the client.

“It would take a huge change in human nature,” Kelly said. “I really want to know the person giving advice. I could be old-fashioned. My kids might say this is terrific.”

No matter how many years away this kind of disruption may be, the very possibility is a major concern for law firms focused on their long-term survival. Law2023 predicts that one of the ways firms will defend against disruption will be to establish internal R&D departments and “skunk works” projects to find new pathways to practice.

It’s a strategy that has worked for IBM, where designated groups of developers are given the autonomy to experiment with technologies that don’t fit seamlessly into the company’s core offerings. It’s also driving innovation at, one of the most prominent players currently bringing disruption to law firms’ doorsteps.

“We ourselves are paranoid about being disrupted,” said CEO John Suh at a legal industry panel at Harvard University earlier this year. “We’ve set up an R&D center on Google’s campus tasked with going after customers we don’t address and new products we don’t offer.”

“We’ve brought some crazy doctoral talent in-house to see what we can do.”

It’s not likely that every law firm will need to invest in “crazy doctoral talent” now in order to survive until 2023 and beyond, but disruption is coming. Will you be prepared?