Annual Meeting Preview: Five Questions With Fastcase CEO Ed Walters

By Amber Nimocks

This year’s NCBA Annual Meeting features a rockstar lineup of legal innovators from around the country. Among them is Ed Walters,  CEO of Fastcase and a leader in Artificial Intelligence integrations for the legal profession.

Walters will present a CLE titled “Ethics of Artificial Intelligence” on Saturday, June 23 at 12:30 at the Wilmington Convention Center. Registration for NCBA Annual Meeting includes CLE  while availability remains. Sign up by May 1 to secure your place.

Here’s a quick look at Walters’ take on AI and the future of the law.

Are you concerned about AI changing the legal profession’s understanding of ethics?

I’m more concerned with how we apply the existing ethical rules to new tech, including AI.  The ethics rules (for the most part) stay the same, and we apply them to a changing world.  Sounds easy, but it’s actually pretty hard.

Most of our ethical rules exist to protect clients – but when machines begin analyzing legal problems, our rules break down.  With existing lawyer regulations, we regulate the inputs: lawyers have to graduate from an accredited law school, pass the bar exam, pass character and fitness, and in many states, do continuing legal education.  We presume that people who satisfy those conditions are fit to dispense legal advice.

Those questions are irrelevant to machines.  Could Watson pass the bar exam?  Probably – but would that mean that it could give competent legal advice?  Probably not.  With software, we’d probably want to look at outputs: is the advice accurate and up to date?

Think about TurboTax.  Is there any question that the software is interpreting tax law?  No – but it isn’t licensed anywhere. Do we need to regulate TurboTax?  No.  But we also wouldn’t let Intuit start representing clients in legal matters either.  We’re not yet ready to draw the lines, but that world is coming fast.

How will the practice of law and lawyers’ approach to ethics change over the next five years when it comes to AI?

For me, the greatest benefit of AI would be to help people who are unrepresented.  There are millions of legal matters for which lawyers aren’t consulted.  The amount in controversy is too small, or the cost is too high, or the client doesn’t know that he or she is facing a legal problem. The ability to help people with repetitive, small problems (NDAs, temporary restraining orders) at scale is the greatest opportunity, and for the most part, would expand the market for legal services.

 Any specific predictions or worst-case scenarios? 

If Arnold Schwarzenegger shows up in court as opposing counsel, run.

Will those changes affect large firms and solo/small firms in the same ways? If not, how will these changes play out in different arenas?

The bigger divide will be between makers and consumers – law firms (of all sizes) that are comfortable with data and who start experimenting with AI software will have a natural advantage over firms that don’t – just like the first firms that used computer-assisted legal research had an advantage over lawyers who relied only on books.

I just finished working on a book about this that’s coming out this fall, called “Data-Driven Law: Data Analytics for the New Legal Services.” Corporate clients use data to make decisions all across their organizations – everywhere except the legal department.  Firms that help clients make data-driven legal decisions are going to have a natural advantage over anecdote-driven law firms.

You’ve compared the present moment to the Industrial Revolution. What can 21st-century lawyers learn from the Industrial Revolution?

In the same way that industrial process changed America during the Industrial Revolution, it can also create a revolution in legal services.  Things like standard parts, assembly lines, mass-production, and automation created more affordable cars for consumers and unprecedented growth in the automotive industry.  Similarly, we can use standard contract provisions, legal specialization, and document automation to spread the benefits of legal help more broadly, while creating growth in the legal services market. For people who are curious and excited about trying things that are new, it’s a pretty exciting time to be a lawyer.