Legal Technology

Will newbie associates be replaced by Watson? 35% of law firm leaders can envision it

Man standing next to a computer with a brain shown on the screen

Image from Shutterstock.

An increasing number of law firm leaders believe first-year associates and paralegals could be replaced by a “Watson”-type computer with artificial intelligence in the next five to 10 years. Watson is an IBM product described as a “cognitive computing” system.

Thirty-five percent of surveyed law firm leaders say they can envision first-year associates being replaced by artificial intelligence in that time period, and 47 percent said they can envision paralegals being replaced with AI computing.

That is a jump from 2011, when 23 percent of law firm leaders believed first-year associates could be replaced with artificial intelligence and 35 percent believed paralegals could be replaced. The Am Law Daily (sub. req.) has the story on the Altman Weil survey findings (PDF).

Twenty percent of law firm leaders surveyed this year said computers will never replace human practitioners, down from 46 percent in 2011.

The Altman Weil survey received responses from managing partners and chairs of 320 law firms with 50 or more lawyers.

Watson is already making some headway in law firms. In August, Dentons said it was helping train a Watson legal database called ROSS in U.S. bankruptcy law. Latham & Watkins is also working with Watson-derived applications, including predicting coding technologies, according to the Am Law Daily story.

But some law firm leaders interviewed by the Am Law Daily said first-year associates will always be needed at law firms. Latham chair Bill Voge said associates may be the first to master computer systems using artificial intelligence. “No matter what we plan on the technology front, we will always have first year associates,” Voge told the publication. “They are the future partners of our firm.”

Fourth paragraph corrected at 9:50 a.m. to say that the 20 percent number is down from the 46 percent reported in 2011.

We welcome your comments, but please adhere to our comment policy and the ABA Code of Conduct.

Commenting is not available in this channel entry.