Law firm BakerHostetler hired a robot to help with its bankruptcy cases. (iStock)

One of the country’s biggest law firms has become the first to publicly announce that it has “hired” a robot lawyer to assist with bankruptcy cases. The robot, called ROSS, has been marketed as “the world’s first artificially intelligent attorney.”

ROSS has joined the ranks of law firm BakerHostetler, which employs about 50 human lawyers just in its bankruptcy practice. The AI machine, powered by IBM’s Watson technology, will serve as a legal researcher for the firm. It will be responsible for sifting through thousands of legal documents to bolster the firm’s cases. These legal researcher jobs are typically filled by fresh-out-of-school lawyers early on in their careers.

“ROSS surfaces relevant passages of law and then allows lawyers to interact with them. Lawyers can either enforce ROSS’s hypothesis or get it to question its hypothesis,” Andrew Arruda, chief executive of ROSS Intelligence, explained to The Washington Post. “Until now, lawyers have been using static pieces of software to navigate the law, which are limited and put hours of information retrieval tasks on a lawyer’s plate.” The software allows the legal team to upvote and downvote excerpts based on the robot’s interpretation of the question. ROSS uses machine learning technology to fine tune its research methods. The legal robot is accessed via computer and billed as a subscription service.

A future where ROSS, or similar robot lawyers, is used across the country might not be too far away, according to Ryan Calo, a law professor and writer who focuses on the intersection of technology and law. “The use of complex software in the practice of law is commonplace — for instance, in managing discovery,” said Calo. “Watson is a tool — in law or medicine or another context — to assist professionals in making judgments. Eventually, I bet not using these systems will come to be viewed as antiquated and even irresponsible, like writing a brief on a typewriter.”

ROSS’s hiring at BakerHostetler, a firm with 900 lawyers, represents a huge win for ROSS Intelligence in securing use of their software within a major player in the legal field. “Our goal is to have ROSS on the legal team of every lawyer in the world,” said Arruda, who said that they are  testing ROSS in practice areas beyond bankruptcy law.

In recent years, there has been a boom in legal assistance tech start-ups, which use data-mining technology and publicly available legal documents to create powerful legal bots. There’s software like Legal by Lex Machina which mines public court documents using natural language processing to help predict how a judge will rule in a certain type of case. Another start-up called CaseText uses crowdsourcing to analyze thousands of state and federal legal cases.

Even everyday people have created bots to help with the legal system. Last year, an 18-year old British coder developed a parking ticket bot called DoNotPay that quickly handles ticket appeals through a Q&A chat. The bot, which is available for free online, has successful appealed some $3 million worth of tickets, saving drivers the cost of hiring a lawyer for the appeal, which can run between $400 and $900. The DoNotPay robot can also assist with payment-protection insurance claims.

But should human lawyers be worried about their jobs being replaced by robots? BakerHostetler stressed that this is not the case. “ROSS is not a way to replace our attorneys – it is a supplemental tool to help them move faster, learn faster, and continually improve,” said Bob Craig, chief information officer of BakerHostetler.

Arruda of ROSS Intelligence agrees. “With ROSS, lawyers can focus on advocating for their client and being creative rather than spending hours swimming though hundreds of links, reading through hundreds of pages of cases looking for the passages of law they need to do their job,” he said.

“Human lawyers sit at the center of the systems we build,” he said.