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Professor Brian Sheppard

Professor Brian Sheppard: Disruption and Legal Practice

Google, Siri, and IBM’s Watson rely on natural language processing, a “syntactical approach” which enables computers to extract meaning but in many cases, to miss nuance


Technological innovations can replace human labor in many fields – valuable when a job is dangerous, monotonous, or requires precise manipulation of a vast amount of data. But do technological solutions have a place in the application of law? Bloomberg BNA interviewed Professor Brian Sheppard in September about his paper, Incomplete Innovation and the Premature Disruption of Legal Services, in which Professor Sheppard explores the likely outcome if artificial intelligence replaces human intellect in the field of law.

In the article, “Will Artificial Intelligence Favor Conservative Legal Theorists?” Professor Sheppard explains that computer programming is calibrated in specific ways to interact with human language, resulting in computers able to parse texts and extract meaning, but leaves them unable to interpret or discern nuance.

By legal philosophies or theories, Sheppard said he meant the different principles of adjudication that lawyers use when interpreting the law and the Constitution. His paper doesn’t identify any one philosophy with a political leaning, but Sheppard told Big Law Business that generally speaking, some conservative theories will likely be easier for computers to emulate because they are more black-and-white, with little subjectivity.

Professor Sheppard explains in his paper that computer language processing “is agnostic as to meaning; it essentially searches for matching sequences of characters and sorts based on distance between matching sequences within documents or based on match frequency.”

Therefore, artificial intelligence can, at least partially, apply Originalism, a conservative philosophy espoused by Justice Scalia, which holds that the Constitution has a fixed meaning. Artificial intelligence is not yet capable of applying the philosophy of Living Constitutionalism, which is a more liberal approach involving a larger consideration of current cultural priorities.

“My argument is that if lawyers are going to be replaced by computers … some of the more conservative [legal] theories may become more popular again because computers can do them quite well,” commented Professor Sheppard.

Bloomberg BNS took the impact of disruption one step further, asking Professor Sheppard if there is indeed a future for comprehensive legal services. In the article, “Will Human Touch Save Lawyers From Disruption?,” Professor Sheppard commented on a possible scenario in which legal experts are no longer necessary:

Using the travel industry as an example of an industry where [disruption] occurred, Sheppard noted travel agents used to book flights and provide personalized advice about where to stay and what to do at destinations. Those agents were replaced by online sites that can book flights but can’t offer advice about destinations.

Something similar could happen to the legal industry, he said, envisioning a scenario where the market for low-level legal services grows and the market for high level services disappears. One result would be the loss of human lawyers who come up with creative inventive solutions to problems, he said.

‘If the last few years have shown us anything, it’s how fragile the legal supply chain is,’ said Sheppard, referencing the high number of large firms that have collapsed…

If people agree that disruption is likely to occur, then the question is what to do about it.

'We need to start thinking about what’s going to happen to society,” he said.

Read the article, “Will Artificial Intelligence Favor Conservative Legal Theorists?” in Bloomberg BNA

Read the article, “Will Human Touch Save Lawyers From Disruption?” in Bloomberg BNS