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2016: A legal odyssey

It is hard enough to get a job right now in the legal profession. Now, attorneys not only have to worry about other competitive employees, but super computers programmed to handle legal issues.

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You may have seen commercials by IBM involving a computer called, “Watson,” talking to celebrities like Bob Dylan or Ridley Scott.  Watson is an electronic computer system capable of answering questions posed to it in a natural language.  Simply put, it is a computer program where if asked a question, it will spit out an answer. Using the same technology that created Watson, researchers were able to take the program a step further and create the ultimate legal research tool, ROSS.

A research team at the University of Toronto invented ROSS in 2014.  It only took ROSS ten more months to learn Bankruptcy law and to be prepared for commercial use.

ROSS can be thought of as an artificially intelligent legal researcher.  It operates like any other legal database such as LEXIS or WestLaw, but ROSS supposedly responds to questions after analyzing billions of documents and gives a more precise answer.  ROSS continuously adapts with the law and its answers improve the more the program is used.

Among ROSS’s features is the ability to research documents in support of someone’s hypothesis about a certain case.  If an attorney has struggled to find supporting sources, the program will question the hypothesis of the law and try to guide the user to a more logical conclusion.  Another feature is ROSS’s ability to adjust its answers and conclusions based on recent changes in the law.  The database’s answers improve the more questions it is asked.  Because ROSS is posed different questions in different ways, the database learns to tailor the answer for better results.

ROSS has been given its first opportunity in the legal arena by the law firm Baker Hostetler LLP, a firm that many consider to be one of the most prestigious law firms to work for in the country.  The firm’s Chief Information Officer, Bob Craig, gave a statement related to computer intelligence.  “At Baker Hostetler, we believe that emerging technologies like cognitive computing and other forms of machine learning can help enhance the services we deliver to our clients,” Craig said.

Despite his pronouncement of faith in the program, the firm has announced that it will only be implementing ROSS into their bankruptcy division.  Still, the implementation of ROSS marks a significant shift in how legal research is conducted.

Until ROSS can construct the meat and potatoes of practice, human attorneys will still be needed. 

Despite programs like ROSS, attorneys will still be in high demand.  Regardless of the all-powerful research capabilities of ROSS, the program lacks many abilities that only run-of-the-mill grunt attorneys can provide.

ROSS cannot form documents, briefs, motions, or legal memorandums.  ROSS certainly cannot correspond with clients, opposing counsel, medical providers, or insurance companies.  Until ROSS can construct the meat and potatoes of practice, human attorneys will still be needed.

ROSS is a not an attorney that investigates or fact checks the circumstances surrounding a case.  ROSS doesn’t know to check the register of deeds, interview witnesses, or analyze evidentiary issues on the spot.  Attorneys are there to defend clients against the unknown under the most inopportune and stressful moments.

Finally, ROSS lacks the most fundamental necessity of an attorney: interaction with people.  Going to trial and communicating with different parties is usually what makes the profession enjoyable.  Figuring out difficult issues between parties or helping a client gain satisfaction or justice when they have just been through the most chaotic moment of their lives is something that many lawyers look forward to.  Despite ROSS’s revolutionary technology, its implementation into the legal field will not wipe out vast job opportunities in the near future.  With that said, ROSS research capabilities will limit jobs to some degree and pose other significant benefits to law firms.

While ROSS will likely impact BigLaw more in the immediate future, the advent of ROSS means that other legal programs are on the horizon that will likely impact the SmallLaw job market as well. 

Newly graduated attorneys will feel threatened by ROSS given its ability to research law, which is what most recent graduates do in their first job out of law school.  Since the majority of the workload that a new associate handles is long, arduous research, it makes sense for a law firm to use a computer to conduct research if they know it will be done faster, probably better, and most importantly, cheaper.

While software like ROSS is likely not cheap, it is probably cheaper than the alternative of hiring a team of attorneys to conduct research.  Clients want their representation to conduct lots of research, but they just do not want to pay for it.  For more complex cases, the ability to save money on research has to be a significant factor that sways firms away from grunt attorney work to software like ROSS.

Law firms will see that implementing a computer into the work force avoids a lot of the stresses that come with the business side of law.  Legal programs like ROSS do not demand promotions or raises.  They do not complain about what benefits or lack thereof the firm offers.  They do not engage in annoying water cooler conversation or act like they are working but instead are searching the web on Facebook or Pinterest.  The advantages of ROSS derive from a robot’s incapability to creatively loaf or annoy those in charge the way humans do.  While ROSS will likely impact BigLaw more in the immediate future, the advent of ROSS means that other legal programs are on the horizon that will likely impact the SmallLaw job market as well.

Given the evolution of technology in the legal field, new graduates with modest aspirations of practicing law in a small firm will equally have to be weary of new legal software like ROSS.

If artificial legal research assistants are already being assimilated into the legal work force, how long will it be before there are programs that conduct foolproof title searches by simply inputting the address of a property?  The website Legal Zoom already offers services where one can construct a will online.  The more sophisticated new programs and technologies get, the more they threaten the province of small law firms and the services that they typically offer.

It is no secret that Campbell Law graduates will likely end up in small law firms.  In 2015, roughly one-third of Campbell Law alumni were employed in law firms consisting of two to ten attorneys.  Given the evolution of technology in the legal field, new graduates with modest aspirations of practicing law in a small firm will equally have to be weary of new legal software like ROSS.

Legal research companies like LEXIS and WestLaw should feel the most threatened by the new database.  ROSS is sold as a subscription service like the other legal research databases.  If ROSS proves to work as well as many boast, it may not be long before ROSS becomes the standard program for conducting legal research.

For the immediate future, young attorneys need not worry.  They will all get the opportunity to work long hours, conduct research independently of programs like ROSS, and drudge through case law like a plow.  The real entities that should feel threatened are LEXIS and WestLaw because programs like ROSS will soon begin to encroach upon their researching capacities.

Johnny Hutchens, Senior Staff Writer Emeritus
About Johnny Hutchens, Senior Staff Writer Emeritus (19 Articles)
Johnny Hutchens is a 2017 graduate of Campbell Law School and served as a Senior Staff Writer for the Campbell Law Observer. He is originally from Charlotte and graduated from the University of South Carolina in 2012 with a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science. The summer following his first year, he interned as a research assistant for Professor Collins in the Legal Research and Writing department at Campbell.
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