Key word searching for legal research may be a thing of the past – along with legal research companies – thanks to the artificial intelligence of a computer. We read with interest last Fall about the work being carried out at the University of Toronto involving training Watson, IBM’s artificial intelligence computer system that won on Jeopardy in 2011, how to perform legal research.

The researchers founded a company, ROSS (which doesn’t apparently stand for anything), to market this service to law firms.  The co-founder of ROSS, Andrew Arruda, says that “It’s able to do what it would take lawyers hours to do in seconds.”

Originally trained with Canadian law, ROSS recently announced that they are now training Watson with U.S. bankruptcy and insolvency law cases, and have signed up a number of U.S. law firms to test (and additionally train) the system.

ROSS uses natural language processing, meaning a lawyer can ask ROSS a legal question just like they were talking to another lawyer. ROSS will analyse all of its accumulated knowledge and provide one or more answers. Where more than one answer is provided, it will rank each one based on how confident it is that it got the answer right. A senior lawyer can use ROSS to perform legal research without requiring an army of students and associates.

While law students might be trembling in their shoes over being rendered redundant by a computer, the established law research firms, such as LexisNexis and Westlaw, should be the most concerned. Just as Netflix has replaced storefront video rental establishments such as Blockbuster, ROSS, and other firms like it, may, someday in the near future, replace LexisNexis and Westlaw in the estimated $8.4 billion annual legal research market.