Cognitive Enterprise

ROSS and Watson tackle the law

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When Jimoh Ovbiagele was 10 years old, his parents decided to separate. His mother started seeking out divorce lawyers, but was quickly halted by the astronomical hourly rates. “As a single mother with two very young kids, she couldn’t pay for even a couple hours of this this divorce lawyer’s time,” says Ovbiagele.

Years later, law seemed like a natural path for Ovbiagele—a way to help ensure others would not have to go through what his mother did—but while the University of Texas computer science major considered applying to law school in 2011, he was turned off by the amount of time he’d be expected to devote to research, rather than the practice, in the profession.

The seed, however, had been planted. When he got invited to work with IBM’s Watson he knew he had an opportunity to make right two of the things he saw as wrong with the legal field—price point and the time wasted slogging through data. “Legal research seemed like the greatest problem. We [knew we] could make a really big change by bringing in state-of-the-art technology, cognitive computing and natural language to the practice of the law.”

According to Ovbiagele, one of the major impediments to quality, affordable legal representation is the high cost of legal research. The body of law is a growing mountain of complex data, and requires increasingly more hours and manpower to parse. In fact, a recent study found that found that new associates spend between 31 and 35 percent of their time conducting legal research. But with so much data out there, it’s impossible to know what you don’t know.

“Lawyers are drowning in this sea of data that they can’t necessarily use,” says Andrew Arruda, CEO of ROSS Intelligence, “and [they have questions] they desperately need to find answers to.”

Problem is, corporate clients have become increasingly cost-conscious about their legal bills, refusing to pay for the hours spent on research, even as those hours soar. At the same time, individual clients are often barred from accessing legal services to begin with, due to the high price point. Bottom line: for law firms to stay competitive, they must start cutting costs. That means finding ways to make processes like research more efficient.

That’s where ROSS Intelligence comes in. Built on the Watson cognitive computing platform, ROSS has developed a legal research tool that will enable law firms to slash the time spent on research, while improving results.

“I think up to this point we haven’t had the technology to be able to pursue this,” says Ovbiagele,” and now that we do, we owe it to society to see it through.”

Current legal research offerings like Bloomberg BNA, LexisNexis and Thomson Reuters come with a steep learning curve, requiring training that’s not built in to the billable hour model. In other words, it doesn’t pay to learn how to use these specialized platforms. Internet search is more user friendly, but returns poorer quality results that still need to be sifted through manually.

Ovbiagele and Arruda came up with the idea for a research system based on cognitive computing while in a class at University of Toronto. And Watson provided the kind of tech necessary to achieve their goal.

“ROSS could not have been accomplished prior to the advent of IBM Watson and cognitive computing,” says Ovbiagele. “Existing technologies such as keyword search poorly makes sense of the volume, variety, velocity and veracity of legal data. Watson’s cognitive computing capability enables ROSS’ intelligence.”

Within five months of idea generation, Ovbiagele and Arruda’s team had placed second at the Watson University Competition. Another five saw the product in beta phase.

And what has Watson been doing in that time? Essentially, going to law school.

The ROSS application works by allowing lawyers to research by asking questions in natural language, just as they would with each other. Because it’s built upon a cognitive computing system, ROSS is able to sift through over a billion text documents a second and return the exact passage the user needs. Gone are the days of manually poring through endless Internet and database search results.

“The really amazing thing with cognitive computing,” says Arruda, “is that it’s a switch from programming to teaching, and so what we’ve done is come up with curriculum that’s helped Watson understand and comprehend the law.”

Not only can ROSS sort through more than a billion text documents each second, it also learns from feedback and gets smarter over time. To put it another way, ROSS and Watson are learning to understand the law, not just translate words and syntax into search results. That means ROSS will only become more valuable to its users over time, providing much of the heavy lifting that was delegated to all those unfortunate associates.

Which is not to say that ROSS will be replacing lawyers. Weighing data, drafting documents and making arguments—those will still be left to the humans. But by tackling the burdensome task of research, ROSS frees up lawyers to do what they do best, and helps keep costs down, which brings down the point of entry for clients.

Few law firms of any size can survive in their present form unless they make affordable, quality representation a top priority. Now that ROSS Intelligence has tapped into Watson’s cognitive abilities, firms have the ability to do just that. Along the way, they just might just transform the entire industry.

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