Lawyers and the invention of the barometer

Larry Ribstein —  15 March 2011

Stephen Baker, writing in yesterday’s WSJ:

Watson doesn’t “know” anything, experts say. * * * This is all enough to make you feel reinvigorated to be human. But focusing on Watson’s shortcomings misses the point. It risks distracting people from the transformation that Watson all but announced on its “Jeopardy!” debut: These question-answering machines will soon be working alongside us in offices and laboratories, and forcing us to make adjustments in what we learn and how we think. Watson is an early sighting of a highly disruptive force.

Baker gives the example of a fictional 17th century Italian who has valuable insights about the weather. Then along comes Evangelista Torricelli with his barometer. 

In a world with barometers, Luigi and similar weather savants must find other work for their fabulous minds. Perhaps using the new tool, they can deepen their analysis of weather patterns, keep careful records and then draw conclusions about optimal farming techniques. They might become consultants. Maybe some of them drop out of the weather business altogether. The new tool creates both displacement and economic opportunity. It forces people to reconsider how they use their heads. * * *

As these computers make their way into law offices, pharmaceutical labs and hospitals, people who currently make a living by answering questions must adjust. They’ll have to add value in ways that machines cannot. This raises questions not just for individuals but for entire societies. How do we educate students for a labor market in which machines answer a growing percentage of the questions? How do we create curricula for uniquely human skills * * *

Note the inclusion of “law offices.” 

These are the questions about technology’s effect on the law industry and legal education I pose and try to answer in Practicing Theory and Law’s Information Revolution (with Kobayashi).  Lawyers will no longer be using their expensive educations to slog through documents in warehouses.  But legal information experts will be figuring out how to use e-discovery, create new legal products and package legal information for capital markets.  Law schools will have to teach them how to do these things.

Moaning about how computers can’t practice law not only misses the point of these developments, but is incoherent in a world where it’s increasingly unclear what “practicing law” means.

Larry Ribstein


Professor of Law, University of Illinois College of Law