Most lawyers predict the future as part of their every day work. The best lawyers are very good at it. Indeed, the top lawyers I have worked with have all been great prognosticators, at least when it comes to predicting litigation outcomes. That is why concepts of predictive coding come naturally to them. Since they already do probability analysis as part of their work, it is easy for them to accept the notion that new software can extend these forward-looking skills. They are not startled by the ability of predictive analytics to discover evidence.
Although these lawyers will not know how to operate predictive coding software, nor understand the many intricacies of computer assisted search, they will quickly understand the concepts of probability relevance predictions. This deep intuitive ability is found in all good transactional and litigation attorneys. Someday soon AI and data analytics, perhaps in the form as Watson as a lawyer, will significantly enhance all lawyer’s abilities. It will not only help them to find relevant evidence, but also to predict case outcomes.
Transactional Lawyers and Future Projections
A good contract lawyer is also a good prognosticator. They try to imagine all of the problems and opportunities that may arise from a new deal. The lawyer will help the parties foresee issues that he or she thinks are likely to arise in the future. That way the parties can address the issues in advance. The lawyers include provisions in the agreement to implement the parties intent. They predict events that may, or may not, ever come to pass. Even if it is a new type of deal, one that has never been done before, they try to predict the future of what is likely to happen. I recall doing this when I helped create some of the first Internet hosting agreements in the mid-nineties. (We started off making them like shopping center agreements and used real estate analogies.)
Contract lawyers become very good at predicting the many things that might go wrong and provide specific remedies for them. Many of the contractual provisions based on possible future events are fairly routine. For instance, what happens if a party does not make a payment? Others are creative and pertain to specific conduct in the agreement. Like what happens if any party loses any shared information? What disclosure obligations are triggered? What other curative actions? Who pays for it?
Most transactional lawyers focus on the worst case scenario. They write contract provisions that try to protect their clients from major damages if bad things happen. Many become very good at that. Litigators like myself come to appreciate that soothsaying gift. When a deal goes sour, and a litigator is then brought in to try to resolve a dispute, the first thing we do is read the contract. If we find a contract provision that is right on point, our job is much easier.
Litigation Lawyers and Future Projections
In litigation the prediction of probable outcomes is a constant factor in all case analysis. Every litigator has to dabble in this kind of future prediction. The most basic prediction, of course, is will you win the case? What are the probabilities of prevailing? What will have to happen in order to win the case? How much can you win or lose? What is the probable damage range? What is the current settlement value of the case? If we prevail on this motion, how will that impact settlement value? What would be the best time for mediation? How will the judge rule on various issues? How will the opposing counsel respond to this approach? How will this witness hold up under the pressure of deposition?
All litigation necessarily involves near constant probability analysis. The best litigators in the world become very good at this kind of future projection. They can very accurately predict what is likely to happen in a case. Not only that, they can provide pretty good probability ranges for each major future event. It becomes a part of their everyday practice.
Clients rely on this analysis and come to expect their lawyers to be able to accurately predict what will happen in court. Trust develops as they see their lawyer’s predictions come true. Eventually clients become true believers in their legal oracles. They even accept it when they are told from time to time that no reasonable prediction is possible, that anything might happen. They also come to accept that there are no certainties. They get used to probability ranges, and so do the soothsaying lawyers.
Good lawyers quickly understand the limits of all predictions. A successful lawyer will never say that anything will certainly happen, well almost never. Instead the lawyer almost always speaks in terms of probabilities. For instance, they rarely say we cannot lose this motion, only that loss is highly unlikely. That way they are almost never wrong.
Insightful or Wishful
An international team of law professors have looked into the legal-fortune telling aspects of lawyers and litigation. Goodman-Delahunty, Granhag, Hartwig, Loftus, Insightful or Wishful: Lawyers’ Ability to Predict Case Outcomes, (Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 2, 133–157). This is the introduction to their study:
In the course of regular legal practice, judgments and meta-judgments of future goals are an important aspect of a wide range of litigation-related decisions. (English & Sales, 2005). From the moment when a client ﬁrst consults a lawyer until the matter is resolved, lawyers must establish goals in a case and estimate the likelihood that they can achieve these goals. The vast majority of lawyers recognize that prospective judgments are integral features of their professional expertise. For example, a survey of Dutch criminal lawyers acknowledged that 90% made predictions of this nature in some or all of their real-life cases (Malsch, 1990). The central question addressed in the present study was the degree of accuracy in lawyers’ forecasts of case outcomes. To explore this question, we contacted a broad national sample of U.S. lawyers who predicted their chances of achieving their goals in real-life cases and provided conﬁdence ratings in their predictions.
Prediction of success is of paramount importance in the system for several reasons. In the course of litigation, lawyers constantly make strategic decisions and/or advise their clients on the basis of these predictions. Attorneys make decisions about future courses of action, such as whether to take on a new client, the value of a case, whether to advise the client to enter into settlement negotiations, and whether to accept a settlement offer or proceed to trial. Thus, these professional judgments by lawyers are influential in shaping the cases and the mechanisms selected to resolve them. Clients’ choices and outcomes therefore depend on the abilities of their counsel to make reasonably accurate forecasts concerning case outcomes. For example, in civil cases, after depositions of key witnesses or at the close of discovery, the parties reassess the likelihood of success at trial in light of the impact of these events.
In summary, whether lawyers can accurately predict the outcome of a case has practical consequences in at least three areas: (a) the lawyer’s professional reputation and financial success; (b) the satisfaction of the client; and (c) the justice environment as a whole. Litigation is risky, time consuming, and expensive. The consequences of judgmental errors by lawyers can be costly for lawyers and their clients, as well as an unnecessary burden on an already overloaded justice system. Ultimately, a lawyer’s repute is based on successful calculations of case outcome. A lawyer who advises clients to pursue litigation without delivering a successful outcome will not have clients for long. Likewise, a client will be most satisfied with a lawyer who is accurate and realistic when detailing the potential outcomes of the case. At the end of the day, it is the accurate predictions of the lawyer that enable the justice system to function smoothly without the load of cases that were not appropriately vetted by the lawyers.
The law professors found that a lawyer’s prognostication ability does not necessarily come from experience. This kind of legal-fortune telling appears to be a combination of special gift, knowledge, and learned skills. It certainly requires more than just age and experience.
The law professor survey showed two things: (1) that lawyers as a whole tend to be overconfident in their predictions of favorable outcomes, and, (2) that experienced lawyers do not on average do a better job of predicting outcomes than inexperienced lawyers. Insightful or Wishful (“Overall, lawyers were over-confident in their predictions, and calibration did not increase with years of legal experience”). The professors also found that women lawyers tend to be better at future projection than men, so too did specialists over generalists.
Experience should make lawyers better prognosticators, but it does not. Their ego gets in the way. The average lawyer does not get better at predicting case outcomes with experience because they get over-confident with experience. They remember the victories and rationalize the losses. They delude themselves into thinking that they can control things more than they can.
I have seen this happen in legal practice time and time again. Indeed, as a young lawyer I remember surprising senior attorneys I went up against. They were confident, but wrong. My son is now having the same experience. The best lawyers do not fall into the over confidence trap with age. They encourage their team to point out issues and problems, and to challenge them on strategy and analysis. The best lawyers I know tend to err on the side of caution. They are typically glass half empty types.They remember the times they have been wrong.
How Lawyers Predict The Future
Accurate prediction of future events by lawyers, or anyone for that matter, requires deep understanding of process, rules, and objective analysis. Deep intuitive insights into the people involved also helps. Experience assists too, but only in providing a deep understanding of process and rules, and knowledge of relevant facts in the past and present. Experience alone does not necessarily assist in analysis for the reasons discussed. Effective analysis has to be objective. It has to be uncoupled from personal perspectives and ego inflation.
The best lawyers understand all this, even if they may not be able to articulate it. That is how they are able to consistently and accurately calibrate case outcomes, including, when appropriate, probable losses. They do not take it personally. Accurate future vision requires not only knowledge, but also objectivity, humility, and freedom from ulterior motives. Since most lawyers lack these qualities, especially male lawyers, they end up simply engaging in wishful thinking.
The Insightful or Wishful study seems to have proven this point. (Note my use of the word seems, a typical weasel word that lawyers are trained to use. It is indicative of probability, as opposed to certainty, and protects me from ever being wrong. That way I can maintain my illusion of omnipotence.)
The best lawyers inspire confidence, but are not deluded by it. They are knowledgable and guided by hard reason, coupled with deep intuition into the person or persons whose decisions they are trying to predict. That is often the judge, sometimes a jury too, if the process gets that far (less than 1% of the cases go to trial). It is often opposing counsel or opposing parties, or even individual witnesses in the case.
All of these players have emotions. Unlike Watson, the human lawyers can directly pick up on these emotions. The top lawyers understand the non-verbal flows of energy, the irrational motivations. They can participate in them and influence them.
If lawyers with these skills can also maintain objective reason, then they can become the best in their field. They can become downright uncanny in their ability to both influence and forecast what is likely to happen in a law suit. Too bad so few lawyers are able to attain that kind of extremely high skill level. I think most are held back by an incapacity to temper their emotions with objective ratiocination. The few that can, rarely also have the emphatic, intuitive skills.
Watson as Lawyer Will be a Champion Fortune Teller
The combination of impartial reason and intuition can be very powerful, but, as the law professor study shows, impartial reason is a rarity reserved for the top of the profession. These are the attorneys who understand both reason and emotion. They know that the reasonable man is a myth. They understand the personality frailties of being human. Scientific Proof of Law’s Overreliance On Reason: The “Reasonable Man” is Dead, Long Live the Whole Man, Parts One, Two and Three; and The Psychology of Law and Discovery.
I am speaking about the few lawyers who have human empathy, and are able to overcome their human tendencies towards overconfidence, and are able to look at things impartially, like a computer. Computers lack ego. They have no confidence, no personality, no empathy, no emotions, no intuitions. They are cold and empty, but they are perfect thinking machines. Thus they are the perfect tool to help lawyers become better prognosticators.
This is where Watson the lawyer comes in. Someday soon, say the next ten years, maybe sooner, most lawyers will have access to a Watson-type lawyer in their office. It will provide them with objective data analysis. It will provide clear rational insights into likely litigation outcomes. Then human lawyers can add their uniquely human intuitions, empathy, and emotional insights to this (again ever mindful of overconfidence).
The AI-enhanced analysis will significantly improve legal prognostications. It will level the playing field and up everyone’s game in the world of litigation. I expect it will also have the same quality improvement impact on contract and deal preparations. The use of data analytics to predict the outcome in patent cases is already enjoying remarkable success with a project called Lex Machina. The CEO of Lex Machina, Josh Becker, calls his data analytics company the moneyball of IP litigation. Tam Harbert, Supercharging Patent Lawyers With AI. Here is the Lex Machina description of services:
We mine litigation data, revealing insights never before available about judges, lawyers, parties, and patents, culled from millions of pages of IP litigation information.
Many corporations are already using the Lex Machina’s analytics to help them to select litigation counsel most likely to do well in particular kinds of patent cases, and with particular courts and judges. Law firms are mining the past case data for similar reasons.
Here is my prediction for the future of the legal profession. In just a few more years, perhaps longer, the linear, keyword-only evidence searchers will be gone. They will be replaced by multi-modal, predictive coding based evidence searchers. In just a decade, perhaps longer (note weasel word qualifier), all lawyers will be obsolete who are not using the assistance of artificial intelligence and data analytics for general litigation analysis.
Lawyers in the future who overcome their arrogance, their overconfidence, and accept the input and help of Watson-type robot lawyers, will surely succeed. Those who do not, will surely go the way of linear, keyword-only searchers in discovery today. These dinosaurs are already being replaced by AI-enhanced searchers and AI-enhanced reviewers. I could be overconfident, but that is what I am starting to see. It appears to me to be an inevitable trend pulled along by larger forces of technological change. If you think I am missing something, please leave a comment below.
This rapid forced evolution is a good thing for the legal profession. It is good because the quality of legal practice will significantly improve as the ability of lawyers to make more accurate predictions improves. For instance, the justice system will function much more smoothly when it does not have to bear the load of cases that have not been appropriately vetted by lawyers. Fewer frivolous and marginal cases will be filed that have no chance of success, except for in the deluded minds of second rate attorneys. (Yes, that is what I really think.) These poor prognosticators will be aided by robots to finally recognize a hopeless case. That is not to say that good lawyers will avoid taking any high risk cases. I think they should and I believe they will. But the cases will be appropriately vetted with realistic risk-reward analysis. The clients will not be seduced into them with false expectations.
With data analytics unnecessary motions and depositions will be reduced for the same reason. The parties will instead focus on the real issues, the areas where there is bona fide dispute and uncertainty. The Watson type legal robots will help the judges as well. With data analytics and AI, more and more lawyers and judges will be able to follow Rule 1 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Then just, speedy, and inexpensive litigation will be more than a remote ideal. The AI law robots will make lawyers and judges smart enough to run the judicial system properly.
Artificial intelligence and big data analytics will enable all lawyers to become excellent outcome predictors. It will allow all lawyers to move their everyday practice from art to science, much like predictive coding has already done for legal search.
In the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.:
“We are studying what we shall want in order to appear before judges, or to advise people in such a way as to keep them out of court. The reason why it is a profession, why people will pay lawyers to argue for them or to advise them, is that in societies like ours the command of the public force is intrusted to the judges in certain cases, and the whole power of the state will be put forth, if necessary, to carry out their judgments and decrees. People want to know under what circumstances and how far they will run the risk of coming against what is so much stronger than themselves, and hence it becomes a business to find out when this danger is to be feared. The object of our study, then, is prediction, the prediction of the incidence of the public force through the instrumentality of the courts.”
That’s a great quote. Thanks.
[…] I know that all trial lawyers over forty have Perry Mason delusions of grandeur. They think their awesome cross-examination will cause the witness to break down and admit the truth, or at least get them to say what they want. Maybe they will even cry in the process. I know I still suffer from that delusion. It is a delusion buttressed by the few times, to be honest, very few times, in my career where that really happened. We tend to forget that most depositions are just frustrating exercises in pinning people down. We focus our memories on the rare breakthroughs and highlights. Overconfidence like that is just part of most lawyers personalities, as I explained in Lawyers as Legal-Fortune Tellers. […]
[…] unable to objectively predict the likely outcome of a potential client’s case. See: Lawyers as Legal-Fortune Tellers, (e-discovery Team, 3/30/14); Goodman-Delahunty, Granhag, Hartwig, Loftus, Insightful or Wishful: […]