It can be hard to appreciate the homogenizing effects of various strong influences around us. Social justice, for example, aspires to mediocrity, as excellence is relative and allows some to succeed and, invariably, some fail. Better we should all be mediocre, or equitable as it’s benignly described, than hard work and talent be rewarded. If we’re all beautiful, then no one can be more beautiful. And the unbeautiful will be just as entitled to prominence as the gorgeous, even though we all know they’re butt ugly.
But our reliance on technology similarly pushes homogenization, as Carolyn Elefant describes in a very interesting post, dystopianly entitled “Alexa, Please Hire Me A Lawyer: How AI Will Change EVERYTHING We’ve Been Taught About Marketing Legal Services.” Before getting to the meat, it’s worth noting the word “please” in the request to an AI service. There’s nothing wrong with being polite by default, as most of us are, but there is a belief that when talking at (not “to,” but “at”) HAL, you ought to be nice. So as not to hurt HAL’s feelings.
Yes, I realize that asking an AI-assistant to find a lawyer sounds far-fetched — like something out of a bad sci-fi movie. But Marketing in the Age of Alexa , a thoughtful, must-read article by Niraj Dawar in this month’s issue of the Harvard Business Review will persuade you otherwise. Dewar describes how consumers will come to rely on AI-assistants not just to carry out instructions like purchasing laundry detergent or scheduling a dog-walker, but also to anticipate their needs.
When we go to the market to buy a tomato, we will look at them carefully, squeeze them, smell them, in order to find a tomato worthy of eating. When you tell Siri, “please get me three tomatoes” as part of your grocery order, will anyone do that for you? Or will they grab three tomatoes, put them in a bag and send them off to you? Quality will suffer for convenience, just as Tang was once considered a space-age substitute for actual orange juice.
But once we’re inured to mediocrity, will it matter? And once mediocrity becomes the prevailing bar for acceptability, will there be anyone trying to do better? Alexa, please find me a lawyer. The algo can compare objective criteria, and lawyers will respond by creating the appearance of objective criteria to game the dumb algo. Keywords? That ship sailed long ago, when baby lawyers with a few hours under the belts created websites calling themselves “experienced.” Any fool can do it.
Hours, locations, specialties, reviews and, most importantly, price?
Here’s at least two ways that a sophisticated bot like Eve might help consumers find legal services:
- Instead of spending hours searching for a lawyer on line, consumers in need of assistance for a divorce, incorporation, will preparation or other legal needs could ask the bot to research and identify lawyers. Consumers could include criteria that they consider important – such as cost, 5-star reviews, success in similar cases or online availability – and the bot could return the results.
- Many consumers, myself included often fail to update legal documents even after a life-changing event like death or divorce because it’s too complicated. It’s such a hassle to call around to lawyers willing to undertake a cost-effective document audit and make recommendations for a price-certain. But if I could simply instruct an AI-assistant to find an attorney who would provide this service and obtain a report and recommendations for a fee of a few hundred dollars, I would gladly avail myself of this kind of service.
Carolyn’s focus may be bit more applicable to her concerns, but they’re merely examples. Once reliance on AI becomes normal, why wouldn’t a person seeking representation ask Alexa to find them a lawyer? And just to make it even more obvious, it’s not as if people are doing a good job of finding lawyers on Google on their own these days,
Putting aside other AI issues, like recording your conversations and sending them off to friends for amusement at cocktail parties, or being furious at Zuck for selling your data to Cambridge Analytica while handing Bezos your life story, there are certainly conveniences to be had by letting AI handle your commodity needs. But lawyers? Are we fungible widgets?
If you believe that people in need of legal services beyond a simple contract will know better, you’ve learned nothing of life since the advent of search engines. I get unsolicited emails from random lovely folks inquiring about my availability to handle a public urination case in Peoria all the time. They found me on the internet! Aren’t I lucky?
Or the ubiquitous “I just have a quick question” one-hour call from people schooled by Avvo and Legalzoom to believe that lawyers are available for free answers upon demand as a loss-leader for the possibility of making a quick buck. And they get a bit miffed to learn that you aren’t as thrilled to fulfill their needs as they believe you should be. After all, Google tells them that you’re there for them, and so you are, dammit. “Why you lawyers so greedy, always wanting money?”
Carolyn argues that the bots won’t take our “humanity” entirely out of the equation.
Having a bot make a decision for a consumer doesn’t minimize the importance of inter-personal relations or the human touch. To the contrary, the importance of these characteristics is enhanced, because a consumer can instruct a bot to seek out lawyers with high reviews for empathy or being accessible. Moreover, a consumer could still seek personal referrals, but then ask the bot to measure the recommendations against other lawyers that the bot locates online.
Again, this might relate more to the facile values that are trendy these days to a particularly vacuous consumer group. Crying tears with clients, holding their hand dearly, will get you good Yelp ratings. Winning their cases, of course, has nothing to do with empathy, and often demands the opposite, as we’re compelled to save clients from themselves even though their feelings would prefer otherwise.
Rather than make Alexa a better substitute, or infuse the algo with a means to discern quality, the human characteristics most easily assessed are the ones most easily gamed and least important. Someone will ask, “Siri, find me a lawyer who will win my case,” but what’s your recourse when Siri finds you Timmy the Empathetic Lawyer and you spend the rest of your life sitting in a prison cell?
Still, people will do this because it’s easy and technology is like magic. Who cares if you get mealy tomatoes with worm holes? At least you never had to leave your chair. On the bright side, all tomatoes will be like that since there will be no reward for growing better tomatoes, or being an excellent lawyer. If the algo can’t tell, nobody will care.