On Tuesday, September 29, students at the University of Iowa College of Law met with Craig Cook, an Iowa Law alum who works at IBM on legal issues at the cutting edge of computer technology such as the “cognitive system” named Watson. Mr. Cook talked about the potential for Watson and the machines that will follow to produce tremendous impact not only throughout our society but also directly in the field of law.

Watson is an entirely new phenomenon in computing, famous now for its ability to “learn” in a fashion that appears, to those not familiar with the programming behind the curtain, quite human. During the meeting, Mr. Cook discussed a number of the fields where Watson is being tested, from medicine, where Watson has the potential to combine the best attributes of medical professionals and supercomputers, to culinary, where Watson is capable of inventing meals that are tasty but admittedly less than “visually stunning” (Mr. Cook speculates that this has to do with Watson’s lack of vision).

What then are the implications for the legal field?

Mr. Cook is optimistic that Watson will eventually have “democratizing” effects on the legal field. Although Watson will likely face some resistance from lawyers and IBM recognizes that “technologies like Watson are going to have to prove themselves to lawyers,” Mr. Cook is confident that Watson can and will do so in a relatively short time span. “Technology that does something better… always wins… eventually” as Mr. Cook told the class. The tremendous ability of cognitive systems to bring up to speed an industry that IBM’s research indicates 64% of practitioners feel is behind in computer analytics cannot be overlooked.

Although access to the services offered will likely come through well-known legal information services providers, such as WestLaw or Lexus Advance, Watson will add a dimension that will move “routine” work such as document analysis and case research to a level much closer to the human thought process.  Eventually, Watson will learn to do these tasks as competently as the lawyers currently doing the work, although at speeds human attorneys can only dream of.

This might provoke concern about the impact of Watson-style supercomputers on legal employment. Despite that commonplace worry, Mr. Cook and the folks at IBM don’t think lawyers need to be overly concerned. Although Watson will eat up some legal work, it is unlikely to swallow very many jobs wholesale. This is because while some legal work can be “learned” by Watson, there is a level of abstraction and analogizing that occurs in much legal work that both Watson and its progeny in the foreseeable future will have trouble duplicating.  And, says Mr. Cook, the sound practical judgment that a lawyer provides can’t be replaced by technology.

Whatever the impact Watson ends up having on the legal market, it is certain that cognitive computing will soon sit at the intersection of technological innovation and the law, and lawyers need to begin thinking seriously about how to best utilize its capabilities and how they will add value on top of its capabilities. 

Would you like to know more? Visit http://www.ibm.com/smarterplanet/us/en/ibmwatson/ for details on Watson and its applications.

                                                                                                                                                                                                           Peter Kline | October 7, 2015