More about Watson, the chess-playing computer — and the sweet spot of mid-size law firms

IBM’s Watson, the chess-playing, cognitive computer has gotten everybody’s attention. No one is more fascinated than the lawyer-futurists. Most recently, Paul Lippe and Daniel Martin Katz have spoken. They are lawyers (one a former general counsel and one a law professor) who are working with IBM as consultants. We suspect they are telling IBM all the lawyer secrets.

The Lippe-Katz article is“10 Predictions about how IBM’s Watson will impact the legal profession.”

Watson apparently can organize, analyze and restate law; and it can manage both simple and complex legal processes. Lippe and Katz say it is “the most significant technology ever to come to law.”

Lippe and Katz doubt that Watson “will displace the reasoning processes of lawyers,” but they believe it will show “how rare it is” that lawyers actually employ those processes. On the other hand, they say, most of what most lawyers do is merely to apply “proven approaches in slightly different contexts,” which Watson can also do. Solving problems the first time requires legal reasoning. Applying the same solutions later to similar problems, is “managing a process.”

The thinking is that, if Watson can analyze a matter and outline the process that will lead to a desired outcome, then the job is done. (This is analogous to how Watson is applied to diagnose medical problems.)

But that dog won’t hunt in Superior Court. Or in the regulatory agencies. Analyzing a matter and determining what should be done is THE EASY PART. The hard part is bringing adverse parties together, persuading decision makers, confronting the unexpected. The hard part is persuading flesh-and-blood decision makers to do what a machine might readily see is sensible.

What seems blindingly obvious to a lawyer is often merely blinding to ordinary mortals (sometimes referred to as “non-lawyers”). Players in legal matters (clients, judges, juries, regulators) persist in doing what computers say they shouldn’t. It takes lawyers to fix that: to resolve impasses, forge agreements, persuade, react, and overcome.

Watson and other machines certainly do seem set to take away large swaths of work that lawyers have made a lot of money on in recent decades. But what will be left is what we came here to do in the first place, and that is where we should focus our practice henceforth: on creative problem solving — both intellectual and practicable.

Need I say that creative problem-solving is the sweet spot of mid-size firms?

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