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Will "Robolawyers" Dominate The Future of Law?

by: Noah Waisberg | September 26, 2013
6 min read

Is law practice changing dramatically or will good lawyering always be centered around the same skills as ever? Are these mutually exclusive? Based on the legal blogosphere, some people appear to think they are. I'm not convinced.

Many people feel that law practice is changing dramatically. For example, legal futurist Richard Susskind

claims that legal institutions and lawyers are poised to change more radically over the next two decades than they have over the last two centuries.

The future of legal service, he says, will be ... a world of virtual courts, Internet-based global legal businesses, online document production, commoditized service, legal process outsourcing, and web-based simulated practice. Legal markets will be liberalized, with new jobs, and new employers, for lawyers.

He argues:

that the market is increasingly unlikely to tolerate expensive lawyers for tasks (guiding, advising, drafting, researching, problem-solving, and more) that can equally or better be discharged by less expert people, supported by sophisticated systems and processes.

Views like this characterize the "Future of Law" camp. Supporters include practicing lawyers, writers and academics, as well as consultants and vendors selling complementary tools (e.g., lawyer efficiency, practice management or bill tracking software).

Others think the Future of Law ideas are hooey (e.g., Scott Greenfield, Brian Tannenbaum). A recent example comes from Frank H. Wu, Chancellor & Dean of University of California Hastings College of the Law, piece "Resist the Robolawyer" in Above the Law:

No doubt there is “commodity” work in legal practice. But even what might be reduced to routine still involves people’s lives. Between off-the-shelf legal forms and high-end bespoke opinion letters lies the range of human problems amenable to human remedies.

I will wager that, while we strive to introduce actual automation as well as scientific management (“Taylorism” for the aficionados) to law, the best lawyers will remain those who form meaningful relationships with clients. The most sophisticated matters demand not only judgment but also creativity, and the experts who possess those qualities do not wish to be treated as if they were a device for dispensing advice.

We'll call these people the "Lawyers Being Lawyers" camp.

I'm firmly in the Future of Law camp. I'm a former Biglaw corporate lawyer now running a legal tech business largely because I know there's a lot of room for improvement in how corporate lawyers work. I write here to clear up a misconception some Lawyers Being Lawyers people appear to have about what Future of Law people think about the future of law. Most or all of us Future of Law people think that actual lawyers serving clients with real problems will continue to be central in how law is practiced in 5–10–20 years. I find nothing objectionable in Wu's "the best lawyers will remain those who form meaningful relationships with clients. The most sophisticated matters demand not only judgment but also creativity". That said, technology and practice innovations will seriously impact how lawyers serve their clients. And lawyers not using appropriate technology and well-thought-through procedures will deliver lower quality work product in more time for more money than their peers who embrace change. Or they won't, because they will have trouble getting clients on those terms.

Let's consider an analogy to medicine. The best internists are perhaps those who have great innate diagnostic ability, creativity and judgement, and listen to their patients. They also likely know how to leverage technology and process to their patients' advantage. MRIs, blood tests, drugs, checklists, and computer-aided diagnostics matter now and will matter in the future. Technology and process help make the best doctors great at their work.

Could law be different? Is there "legal exceptionalism"? I don't think so. Here are some examples showing how current legal technology can make lawyers better:

  • Litigators can do more accurate document review in less time using technology aided review software. They can better find and understand cases using Ravel's research tools or crowdsource legal arguments (for a very reasonable price) using Mootus.
  • Lawyers can make repeated, quick, and accurate judgements about complex statutes with the help of an expert system built on the Neota Logic platform, or use the same technology to help their clients solve these problems on their own.
  • Corporate lawyers can draft documents faster and with less errors using document assembly systems (e.g., ContractExpress) or drafting tools (e.g., Turner). And our contract review software has been shown to help a user create more accurate agreement summaries (e.g., for due diligence purposes) in significantly less time. Lawyers who do diligence without it risk missing provisions, which can lead to them giving incorrect legal advice.

The best lawyers do high quality work. And the details matter in law practice. Technology can help lawyers get the details right. It isn't the whole picture of making a great lawyer, but it's an important element. And, thanks to the increasing rate of technological development and the big opportunities for improvement in law, it's likely to play an expanding role.

Note: To keep this post short, I'm not covering here other Future of Law issues including outsourcing, project management, and business model changes (e.g., non-lawyer ownership of law firms, non-law firm legal service providers (e.g., Axiom). These should all have a significant impact on how lawyers work and deserve real attention.

(Credit to Ron Friedman and Adam Ziegler, who I discussed these ideas with on Twitter.)

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