Move Over Watson, Here Come The Computer Lawyers

Woe be to the humble lawyer and overworked paralegal. Like master chess players and Jeopardy contestants before them, they too are now in the crosshairs of a superior artificial intelligence.

Called “e-discovery” after the tedious legal discovery process it now dominates, this category of software does more than just searching through millions of documents that are relevant to a given case. E-discovery can also “extract relevant concepts” from the data, reports the New York Times, even when relevant keywords are not present.

“From a legal staffing viewpoint, it means that a lot of people who used to be allocated to conduct document review are no longer able to be billed out,” said Bill Herr [to the NYT] , who as a lawyer at a major chemical company used to muster auditoriums of lawyers to read documents for weeks on end. “People get bored, people get headaches. Computers don’t.”

This is not “Google search for lawyers,” however. It goes beyond that into broad search categories known as linguistic and sociological. Linguistic is a lot like traditional search, but groups a search term with associated concepts. A search for a cat might turn up obvious feline-related documents, but it might also return “constantly chased by dogs” as well.

Sociological search is more powerful, as the software actually begins to analyse the data like a detective. It sees the documents related to discovery, but also might return how those documents were used or interacted with, and by whom. This includes email conversations, IMs and telephone calls and how a person might change between those mediums to hide their tracks:

For example, it finds “call me” moments – those incidents when an employee decides to hide a particular action by having a private conversation. This usually involves switching media, perhaps from an e-mail conversation to instant messaging, telephone or even a face-to-face encounter.

Beyond that, sociological searches can even point out moments when a person’s tone changed in an email, or if they started to type out words or phrases that were more stressed than their usual baseline conversation.

The results speak for themselves: Millions of discovery documents are grouped and analyzed in a matter of days, not months or years, and the lowly paralegal is out of a job. The few that remain should take solace in the fact that computer-generated or not, the optimised documents still need to be analyzed in court and at trial by a human being. For now. [NYT]