Machines v. Lawyers, Etc.

June 18, 2014

Winton Woods was my small section professor at the University of Arizona College of Law in 1978-9. Woody was a great teacher, and a delightful man (and he’s still delightful, after all of these years)! He also came early to tech stuff, leading the Courtroom of the Future effort at the law school in Tucson, and provided sound advice to an attorney—me—who started a solo practice more than 14 years ago.

Woody posted Machines v. Lawyers, by John McGinnis, written for City Journal. Depressing it was, mostly. Read it for yourself, and even if you’re not an attorney, the conclusions translate to most any other fields. (The article brought to mind Changing Times, the name for 42 years of the magazine now known as Kiplinger’s Personal Finance. You may recall a stern voice on a television commercial, warning about “changing times.” Well, they’re here!)

The article focuses on five areas:  discovery (finding out about the other side’s case); legal research; forms; automated briefs and pleadings; and legal analytics. Certainly, in these areas change has already happened.

Take forms and what they now permit. When I started practicing law in the early 1980s I helped clients form corporations. That work lasted for 25 years or so. Now, I get a few formations, but it’s far more common for me to get a client who calls and tells me, in an embarrassed tone, that he already formed the entity, and needs help with an agreement or something else.

Or legal research. Yes, we use Westlaw, and I used to use Lexis. Today, though, with an out-of-country client I was able to check some public records with barely a blip in our conversation. Fifteen years ago, I would have had to find someone to go check those records, at no small cost, and with a turn-around time measured in days.

I take a fine publication, Democracy Journal. Last night I read the lead piece, The Inequality Puzzle, written by former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers. It’s a balanced review of the Piketty book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Much of the review resonated, but I was especially taken with these few words, near the end:

Looking to the future, my guess is that the main story connecting capital accumulation and inequality will not be Picketty’s tale of amassing fortunes. It will be the devastating consequences of robots, 3-D printing, artificial intelligence, and the like for those who perform routine tasks.

Mr. Summers correctly identifies an important issue, mostly. Mostly? Excepting Mr. Summers and people who function at his level, we all perform routine tasks as part of our work. Technology—in all of its forms, including but not limited to his examples, or even the five areas mentioned in Machines v. Lawyers—pushes all of us up the chain, away from routine work.

My firm was a pioneer—long before I arrived—in the use of legal assistants to provide services that did not require an attorney’s time. Frankly, in many cases the “routine tasks” get done as well or better, for less money. And we see that happening more and more, but really simple matters, more and more, never get to us. Partly that’s a direct function of money—people simply don’t call about really small matters—and partly it’s because governmental agencies and the marketplace have figured out how to design systems that bypass attorneys completely. The client who forms his own business entity may use forms that are available on the Arizona Corporation Commission website. There are information sites for people who want to dissolve their marriages without attorneys. Small claims courts in Arizona—the dispute limit where I reside is $3500—do not permit lawyers to be involved, and cases involving up to $10,000 can be heard by a Justice of the Peace who uses abbreviated procedures that many non-lawyers can handle without help.

I don’t buy the notion, implicit in Machines v. Lawyers, that computers can render me and mine obsolete. When I last checked, a computer cannot exercise judgment in a given situation. It cannot listen to a person’s voice, and appreciate what is really going on for her. And it cannot know how to address a particular issue to judge A or B, whose likes and dislikes an attorney may know well. So, candidly, while the easy work goes away, I’m confident that no machine will replace me, or attorneys like me, anytime soon. That all said, capitalism marches on, and one of its signature attributes is its ability to render obsolete certain tasks because someone—or, increasingly, something—can do it better, faster, and cheaper.

Our ancestors jumped on this horse—capitalism—many moons ago. As with democracy—Winston Churchill claimed it was the worst system, except for all of the others—capitalism is one tough program, only easier than all of the others. In my world, those of us who think about our profession discuss these issues frequently. We worry about the future, knowing it will be different (and probably harder), but that people will always value judgment, effort, and commitment.

P.S. I am not addressing the challenges to the psyche that come with days that are comprised of more and more “bet the farm” matters. Some other time!


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