In the end, after you've stripped away their six-figure degrees, their state bar memberships, and their proclivity for capitalizing Odd Words, lawyers are just another breed of knowledge worker. They're paid to research, analyze, write, and argue -- not unlike an academic, a journalist, or an accountant. So when software comes along that's smarter or more efficient at those tasks than a human with a JD, it spells trouble.
That's one of the issues the Wall Street Journal raised yesterday in an article on the ways computer algorithms are slowly replacing human eyes when it comes to handling certain pieces of large, high-stakes litigation. It focuses on a topic that is near and dear to the legal industry (and pretty much nobody else) known as discovery, which is the process where attorneys sort through troves of documents to find pieces of evidence that might be related to a lawsuit. While it might seem like a niche topic, what's going on in the field has big implications for people who earn their living dealing with information.
The discovery process is all about cognition, the ability of people to look at endless bails of info and separate the wheat from the chaff. For many years, it was also extremely profitable for law firms, which billed hundreds of dollars an hour for associates to glance at thousands upon thousands (if not millions) of documents, and note whether they might have some passing relevance to the case at hand. Those days are pretty much dead, gone thanks to cost-conscious clients and legal temp agencies which rent out attorneys for as little as $25-an-hour to do the grunt work. Some firms are still struggling to replace the profits they've lost as a result.
And now comes the rise of the machines -- or, more precisely, the search engines. For a while now, attorneys have employed manual keyword searches to sort through the gigabytes of information involved in these case. But as the journal reports, more firms are beginning to use a technology known as "predictive coding," which essentially automates the process at one-tenth the cost. Recently, a magistrate judge in a major Virginia employment discrimination suit ruled that the defense could use predictive coding to sort through their own data, despite objections by the plaintiffs who worried it might not pick up all the relevant documents (Probably left unspoken here: plaintiffs in lawsuits also like to drive up the costs for defendants, in the hopes that it will encourage them to settle). In truth, researchers have found predictive coding to be as accurate, if not more so, than the attorneys its replacing.