Man vs. Machine: Will E-Technology Render Associates Obsolete?


     In a highly-anticipated showdown, the IBM-created computer “Watson” prevailed against two human champions on the television game show "Jeopardy!".  In a world where machines have already replaced humans in manufacturing and human labor tasks, this sneak peak into a future where humans might also be replaced by machines in intellectual pursuits, was somewhat daunting.


     However, in the world of legal technology, that future might already be here. New technology in searchable electronic formats has already eliminated innumerable hours spent by associates and paralegals pouring over hundreds of thousands of documents.  Is this only the beginning . . . and is it desirable?  In the battle of Man v. Machine, will e-discovery software "free lawyers to be lawyers" or will they simply "reduce the number of jobs for associates"?

In a column by the staff of The Legal Intelligencer published on the Pittsburgh site, it was reported that “the growing use of software programs that can sift through mountains of electronically stored information turned over as a part of pretrial litigation…could put out of work a veritable army of young associates.” The column referred to an article published in the New York Times that said, in part:


After all, software doesn't bill at rates in excess of $100 per hour, and, moreover, as one lawyer told the Times, computers don't get bored or get headaches -- two very common occurrences when poring over thousands of e-mails, most of which will prove irrelevant to the crux of the case.


The column went on to note that “Paul Krugman, the newspaper's economic columnist, cited the story in arguing that even high-status professions like the law can be vulnerable to redundancy as a result of technology.”


     The new technology of producing documents in searchable electronic formats has already eliminated innumerable attorney hours.  Where once every document produced had to be read and considered for its possible value to the case, now the use of keyword searches and other new technology allows the machine, not the human, to identify documents that need further review. But currently, every document identified by the program still has to be vetted by a human for its possible relevance to the case. For law firms and their clients, the dollars saved by having software programs review electronic documents can be much better allocated to the actual preparation of the case; or, as the column noted, “If anything, e-discovery software is as likely to free lawyers to be lawyers as it is to reduce the number of jobs for associates. In any event, many of those jobs have already been outsourced or given largely to support staff.”


    So, for the moment, humans appear to still have functional value over their machine counterparts. And don’t forget, Watson may have won the Man vs. Machine tournament, but he incorrectly answered Final Jeopardy while both the humans got it right, proving we’re not obsolete…quite yet.

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