Freestyle Legal Practice: Inferior Lawyer + Technology Beats Expert Lawyer + Technology?

One of the best things that sometimes happens at professional conferences is when a speaker says something that makes you sit up and pay attention. That happened to me at the British Irish Association of Law Libraries (BIALL) meeting earlier this month when Nick West, Chief Strategy Officer for Mishcon de Reya LLP, paraphrased chess grand master Garry Kasparov and stated:
An intermediate chess player and a computer beats a Grand Master chess player with a computer.
Now for a little background on why that made me sit up and pay attention.

There's been so much buzz about how Artificial Intelligence (AI) is going to replace so much of the legal industry, that it is overshadowing something that we've known in practice for over twenty-five years. Lawyers and technology have a symbiotic relationship that will continue to deepen as technology advances. Yes, some tasks that are now conducted by lawyers will eventually be completed by technology, but there will also be tasks that at this time can only be conducted by highly trained and experienced lawyers, that will someday soon be accomplished by intermediately experienced lawyers with the assistance of advanced technology. This isn't some amazing claim; it has happened already, and will continue to happen into the future.

I talked with Nick West after his presentation, and he pointed me to an article from Deloitte authored by Jim Guszcza, Harvey Lewis, and Peter Evans-Greenwood entitled, Cognitive Collaboration: Why Humans and Computers Think Better Together. In the article, the authors discuss that the concept of AI mimicking human thinking is a distraction from where the real value in "the ways in which machine intelligence and human intelligence complement one another." The concept that they believe needs more focus than AI is Intelligence Augmentation where "the ultimate goal is not building machines that think like humans, but designing machines that help humans think better."

I won't rehash what Guszcza et al, write in their article, but I do want to go back the Kasparov statement mentioned earlier, and how I see this applying to the legal field that could mean that an average or intermediate skilled lawyer and technology could be better than an expert lawyer, even if that lawyer had the same technology. First of all, let me state the actual quote from Gary Kasparov from his New York Review of Books article, "The chess master and the computer."
Weak human + machine + better process was superior to a strong computer alone and, more remarkably, superior to a strong human + machine + inferior process.
Kasparov came to this conclusion after he held a "freestyle chess" match where any combination of computer and human chess players were allowed to compete. The result was that a couple of American amateur players using three computers simultaneously won over grand masters, even when the grand masters used state-of-the-art computers to aid them. Kasparov evaluated the amateurs won because they were "skill[ed] at manipulating and 'coaching' their computers to look very deeply into positions effectively counteracted the superior chess understanding of their grandmaster opponents and the greater computational power of other participants." In other words, they understood how to leverage the computers' to perform freestyle chess, and that skill proved greater than the skills needed to be a chess master playing freestyle chess.

Will the same concept apply to the legal field? I would say that the probability is very strong. The skills needed for the future lawyer, aren't necessarily the skills needed for an expert big law partner today. Those lawyers* who understand the legal concepts and applications and apply the proper technology using a superior process can be better, faster, and cheaper than the highly skilled lawyers who cannot or will not leverage that technology, or who cannot understand how to effectively leverage the application of that technology.

I would say that this is not a future concept, but rather one that arrived in the legal profession years ago. As William Gibson famously said, "The future is already here – it's just not evenly distributed." There are already a number of "average" lawyers using technology and effective processes who are already out there. As the technology improves and helps additional average lawyers think better, it is going to be harder for expert lawyers to prove their value. The skills needed to win in Freestyle Legal Practice will be held by those that understand the roles played by the lawyer, the technology, and the process.

*The fact that I got this idea from attending a law library conference may mean that it's not just the average lawyer who may be the only ones able to leverage these skills.

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Steven B. Levy said...

This is an incredibly important observation. I think it's accurate, with the caveat that not all aspects of lawyering will be equally amenable to this kind of application of computing power. That said, significant swaths _will_ fall to those who can make the most effective use of computational+AI assistance.

Piers Ede said...

Well we all know the story of John Henry. So with that in mind, it makes sense to embrace AI if it's going to give us that cutting edge. If not, well someone else is going to....

Bob Blacksberg said...

I agree very strongly with this observation, and have noted Kasparov's statement several times. The "winners" will apply an effective combination of human intelligence and the computational power of technology support. We do not need to ascribe intelligence, artificial or otherwise, to computation to reap its benefits. These are points I made in the blog post What Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning Really Mean


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