The lawyer is booting up
In Charlotte, errant drivers can negotiate tickets with a computer while companies recruit machines to review documents. Are we entering the age of the robo-lawyer?
Will the lawyer of the future be a computer? Two recent court rulings suggest that, for some of the most basic legal work, it may be the very near future—and some experts think that it won’t be long before computers can perform even more complicated legal tasks.
When Landow Aviation had the roof collapse over one of its airplane hangars at Washington’s Dulles International Airport, it found itself faced with a lawsuit and the task of sorting through over 2 million documents for discovery. It asked a Virginia state court to allow it to use predictive coding—computers programmed to read through the documents looking for key words—to help manage the job. In April, a Virginia state judge gave Landow permission, over the plaintiffs’ objections, to use computers for tasks that otherwise would have been done by lawyers.
A few days later, in an unrelated case, a federal judge in New York issued the first federal opinion formally sanctioning the use of predictive coding instead of review by human attorneys.
“Manual review with keyword searches is costly, though appropriate in certain situations," Judge Andrew Carter wrote. “Under the circumstances of this particular case, the use of the predictive coding software … is more appropriate than keyword searching."
Jeffrey Hahn, an attorney who manages large document review projects for North Carolina-based Womble Carlyle, says computers can never replace human attorneys entirely, but that their use is growing, and definitely reducing the need for human eyeballs.
“I think it is fair to say that by speeding the review, [predictive coding] does in fact reduce the level of the humans needed for a review," Hahn said.
There’s a limit to a computer’s usefulness, he said. Humans are still needed to select the “seed" documents computers use to build their algorithms, validate the quality of a computer’s work, and check for attorney-client privilege. Also, the amount of information companies store electronically has increased greatly, and that creates more documents that lawyers need to review before turning them over to machines.
In a federal case in Illinois, a judge there is currently holding hearings to decide whether to take the use of predictive coding one step further by requiring the defendants in that case to use computers to sort their documents.
Plea bargaining with HAL
Document review, with its rote, repetitive work, might seem like legal work uniquely suited to being turned over to computers. But computers are also being used to negotiate outcomes in the criminal justice system.
In Mecklenburg County, the district attorney’s office has for years used an online traffic ticket resolution center. Unlike other counties where defendants can simply pay off tickets, the Mecklenburg portal allows defendants to negotiate a reduction of the ticket online—work that is typically done by a criminal defense attorney and an assistant district attorney negotiating face to face.
Bruce Lillie, a Mecklenburg County prosecutor, says that the negotiations for traffic tickets usually involve the application of rote formulas where a prosecutor has very little discretion—the sort of thing that computers are very good at. The online portal, he says, frees up the valuable time of prosecutors to work on cases where discretion and judgment are more crucial, and saves the court time and money.
“With some very simple basic cases, you’re trying to allow people to have the same type of experience as at the courthouse without having to come down to the courthouse. You reduce the lines, you reduce the waiting, you reduce some of the chaos at the courthouse. It allows people to have a better experience and work more efficiently," Lillie said.
But while the computer program may help district attorneys work more efficiently, it may not always produce the best results for defendants.
Bill Powers, a criminal defense attorney in Charlotte, said that some defendants have always chosen to handle cases themselves, but he was concerned that many people might not realize that they could be harmed because they don’t understand the consequences of prior citations.
“There are certainly moving violations that they have no idea [about the consequences] until they get the letter from the DMV with a notice of suspension or revocation," Powers said. “I understand it’s very tight times, but I also know that is very much more expensive to fix a problem after the fact."
Lillie said that the county is trying to work with the N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts to expand what the online center can do, for instance by allowing access to driving records so that the computer can make more individualized negotiations.
Only the beginning?
The advance of technology may allow computers to encroach even further still.
Deborah Merritt, a law professor at Ohio State who studies trends in the legal profession, says that many attorneys would be surprised by the amount of legal work that could soon be done by computers. Lawyers have often thought of themselves as immune from the trend of computerization because their job involves uniquely human judgment and critical thinking that computers could never replicate.
But services like LegalZoom already allow customers to plug their personal information into boilerplate legal documents, although LegalZoom says it’s not providing those customers with legal advice.
Still, programs are now being perfected, Merritt says, that will allow computers to draft contracts and wills that are just as good as — or even better — than what any one attorney could draft. An entire archive of legal documents can be stored in a database, and by punching in a few inputs with a client’s specific needs, the program can trawl through all of them and blend the best elements of each to create the best possible document for that particular client.
“The way that technology has moved, law was once a knowledge industry, and a lot of what allowed lawyers to do what they do was that you had people who were managing all sort of complex intellectual problems. But computers can now handle a large amount of that work very, very effectively," Merritt said.
While Merritt said the increasing power of technology would create lucrative opportunities for those lawyers able to make the best use of it, the legal industry faces a crossroads similar to what other industries confronted when new, disruptive technologies made a lot of employees’ jobs obsolete.
“What you’re seeing now is like the Industrial Revolution," Merritt said. “The number of jobs for lawyers is declining. Technology has allowed a huge amount of outsourcing to lower cost providers."