New Abstract: Robot, Esq.

December 11th, 2012

I just submitted an abstract to Law & Society considering the ethical, jurisprudential, and legal implications of technology that can effectively engage in the practice of the law.  The title of the paper is Robot, Esq.

Advances in artificial intelligence are transforming many aspects of our lives, from Google’s autonomous cars to IBM’s Watson defeating the Jeopardy world champion. The legal profession as well is evolving from today’s time-consuming, customized labor-intensive legal market to tomorrow’s on-demand, commoditized law’s information revolution. Soon, artificial intelligence systems will have the ability to reduce answering a legal question to the simplicity of performing a search on Google.

As transformational as this technology may be, it raises fundamental questions about how we view our legal system, the representation of clients, and the development of our law. Before we proceed to develop, implement, and rely on this technology, we must first grapple with three important issues inherent in this change: what are the ethical implications of this technology to the traditional attorney-client relationship; what are the jurisprudential implication of non-humans making and developing legal arguments; and finally, how should we develop the legal and regulatory regime to allow non-attorneys to engage in the practice of law.

This article provides a comprehensive treatment of how advances in artificial intelligence will impact the practice of law, and lays out a framework to consider key issues with this important technology.

First, allowing a computer to dispense legal advice without a human intermediary raises several very important questions. How would the rules of professional conduct apply to Robot, Esq.? If clients become accustomed to technology providing instant, customized answers, the desire to procure attorneys will be further diminished. This shift in demand will result in changing the structure of the legal profession, and modify the workforce. Further, what happens if humans prefer robot lawyers to real lawyers?

Second, beyond the ethical considerations, attorneys must confront what it would mean to have computer systems arguing, and perhaps even deciding cases or controversies. A primary concern is the potential ossification of the law. If a system is simply producing the best argument based on previous precedents (especially if that is a winning argument), the precedents will not evolve and change.

The final issue, is likely to be the first problem confronted–can computers solve legal problems without breaking the law. This technology will have to grapple with state unauthorized practice of law regimes, and address how liability for legal malpractice issues will be handled. These laws can be subjected to constitutional attack under void for vagueness doctrine, and because the speech generated by these algorithms may be protected by the First Amendment.

Developments in artificial intelligence and natural language processing hold great promise for improving the practice of law, increasing access to justice, and providing society with a deeper understanding of how courts operate.  This technology can transform the legal profession and our society. This change would require a fundamental rethinking of approaches to legal education, the practice of law, and, broadly speaking, our system of justice.

This article opens a first chapter in this journey, and sets forth an agenda of issues to consider as the intersection between law, technology, and justice merges.

I will also submit a more developed version next month to the We Robot conference later this year in Stanford, and the International Conference on Artificial Intelligence and the Law this summer in Rome.