by Margaret Ambrose
I was lucky enough to attend a presentation by Andrew Arruda, one of the founders of ROSS. One of the more interesting tidbits from the presentation and the Q&A centered around access to justice. Access to justice, I was interested to learn, was one of the driving forces behind the creation of ROSS. As a small firm lawyer, Arruda wanted ROSS to be affordable for single practitioners. His friend and co-founder was a developer who remembered the financial and emotional toll on his family when, as a child, his parents got a divorce, so he also wanted to make the law less expensive.
Another driving force behind ROSS is changes in the legal industry itself, as more clients demand alternative pay arrangements and are less keen to pay for research related expenses. ROSS is marketed to firms as a way to gain a competitive advantage. It is also marketed to appeal to lawyers (and law students) who find research to be “mundane” and who would prefer to spend more time with clients.
Thus the founding principle of access to justice is closely aligned with the more mercenary objective of competitive advantage. ROSS markets itself as a tool that allows lawyers to be more human, or focus more on their human interactions with clients while ROSS takes over the more mechanical aspects. For big law that means more billable hours. For small practitioners and legal aide offices that serve the general public, that means an ability to serve more in need more efficiently. In this spirit, ROSS is, according to Arruda, priced accordingly to be affordable to small practitioners, and free to those who provide pro bono services.
So what does this mean for law librarians? I will admit it was slightly irritating to hear over and over again during the presentation that legal research is “mundane” or “mechanical.” While I can agree with the access to justice component to ROSS, and even admire its ambition to take on the duopoly of Westlaw and Lexis, it was disconcerting to say the least. Arruda seemed to go to great lengths to assure the audience, that ROSS would not be replacing lawyers, only enhancing their work. Arruda did not, however, go to the same lengths to assure the law librarians in the audience of the same.
In his defense, Arruda didn’t need to do so, and I think if he had it would have weakened his presentation. At the end of the day, ROSS is not meant to be used by laymen. It may perform some legal research, but it has yet to be able to translate real world issues into discrete legal research questions. It is also unclear how usable ROSS is as a product in terms of out-of-the-box, hit-the-ground-running, all of its features are self-explanatory/intuitive. In other words, law students and first-year associates may not be able to use this product as efficiently as it is meant to be used, and no user interface is 100% intuitive.
ROSS is also not 100% reliable, nor can it be, and so requires the user to understand basic principles of legal research to “check” the A.I.’s work. In the Q&A session, the librarians quickly ferreted out these and other weaknesses, and they are just that, weaknesses. It makes sense that Arruda when “selling” his product would not focus on what ROSS can not do. But one of the many jobs of law librarians is to identify the strengths and weaknesses of a legal product. So on the one hand, I was highly impressed by ROSS, and I do think its application and development can not, and should not, be ignored by the profession if only because it has the potential to move access to justice forward.
On the other hand, I was not so impressed by ROSS as to think that it is the end game of legal research products – there will be a new ROSS on the playground sometime in the not-so-distant future. It is our job as law librarians to demonstrate our worth by accurately gauging the strengths and weaknesses of these tools as they are developed, and help facilitate their deployment. Law librarians need to continue to help our students and our patrons grapple with change and navigate ever changing markets- but to do so we need to be agents of change ourselves.
To see a similar presentation on ROSS by Arruda, please see this YouTube link.