Much of my reading lately has focused on two subjects: the #MeToo movement’s righteous war on sexual assault and harassment and, separately, the advent of artificial intelligence’s impact on the law. What seemed like parallel tracks intersected, at least for me, last week, with the publication of an excellent white paper from Microsoft on AI’s future and a line of commentary about a popular comedian’s one-night stand with a young woman that will haunt his career forever. The common thread is the importance of relationships.
The Microsoft paper is a brilliant walk through the future of AI. Brad Smith, the company’s president and chief legal officer, and Harry Shum, the head of AI research, focus on some of the heretofore astonishing possibilities ahead, the likely challenges they pose, and the need for regulatory systems that will seek to have the new world governed ethically and equitably. The paper is notable for stopping short of predicting a future run by robots. Humans still have a place in the Smith-Shum worldview—even, or especially, lawyers. In two decades, they write, “not only will there be AI lawyers practicing AI law, but these lawyers, and virtually all others, will rely on AI to assist them in their practice.” This observation led Richard Troman’s indispensable Artificial Lawyer site to anticipate the rise of a new practice area: the Artificial Intelligence law group. Let the marketing teams—and the conference planners—get to work now!
But here’s the money quote, the takeaway worth pondering: “If AI is to reach its potential in serving humans, then every engineer will need to learn more about the liberal arts, and every liberal arts major will need to learn more about engineering. We’re all going to need to spend more time talking with, listening to, and learning from each other.”
That statement stayed with me as I turned to David Brooks in The New York Times. As is his wont, Brooks was trying to put the controversy over Aziz Ansari’s botched date into a broader context. (For those blessedly removed from internet and cable chatter, an account of Ansari’s oafish behavior set off a firestorm.) Brooks’s point was that intimacy is an essential building block of a healthy, fulfilled life, one that needs to be respected and protected in our “culture of supposedly zipless encounters” (h/t Erica Jong).
His conclusion: “It seems that the smarter we get about technology, the dumber we get about relationships. We live in a society in which loneliness, depression, and suicide are on the rise. We seem to be treating each other worse. The guiding moral principle here is not complicated: Try to treat other people as if they possessed precious hearts and infinite souls. Everything else will follow.”
Now what in the world does this have to do with the advent of AI and the arrival of new practice groups? Everything. As AI advances and overheated advocates proclaim its blinding, transformational power, lawyers will be tempted to embrace the algorithmic future to provide “solutions” for their clients’ problems and, in the process, move even further away from their human needs. This would be a profound mistake.
For the foreseeable future, which is to say your careers, clients will come to elite lawyers seeking not only answers but also understanding and care and trust. For the foreseeable future, no one will pay $1,000 an hour to talk to a smart operating system acting as an artificial lawyer. Even one that sounds like Scarlett Johansson.
Clients want what AI cannot provide: real relationships. Smith and Shum were not being casual or sentimental when they suggested that the future depends on more talking and listening. Brooks identified a real need in intimate relationships of all kinds, including between a client and her counselor: treat each other better. The future will belong to those who can follow where the coders may lead—and simultaneously offer anxious people the balm of reassurance.
Press, the former editor in chief of The American Lawyer, is a founding partner at PP&C Consulting, a law firm advisory group. This essay was published on Bloomberg’s Big Law Business site.