Lawyers, You Are Not Immune

Feature Article

Innovations in technology are forcing many professions to adapt to the information age, which now includes the legal profession

It is quite reasonable to think that lawyers, much like others working in traditionally prestigious professions, are essentially immune to the technological disruptions taking place in other industries around the world. The car-hailing company Uber continues to ravel the taxi business, 3D printers could trigger another industrial revolution, and blockchain technology may cause significant shifts in the financial systems we have been used to for a long time. How could the legal profession possibly be subject to the same technological disruption?

It turns out that even lawyers will not be immune to the shockwaves caused by advancements in technology and the emergence and growth of new startups powering them. In recent years, new legal technology, or legal tech, has begun to transform and alter the work of lawyers and legal processes. Online platforms, which use algorithms to advise users on the best settlement, similar to the systems found on sites like eBay, are being rolled out across Europe and America. There also exists E-discovery software that can sift through heaps of documents more efficiently than paralegals or clerks. Lex Machina, a legal data and contract analytics company, provides simplified text files of legal information, compiled together by gathering lots of data from court cases, documents and other resources. The text files can be used to predict case outcomes, or learn more about other lawyers and judges.

There a wide range of legal startups introducing these technologies, as well as several law firms beginning to implement some of the legal tech that has emerged in recent years. Practice management software, AI legal tech software, and other technologies are starting to take the fore. It thus suggests that technology will cause similar shifts to the legal profession to that has also taken place in other industries. In their book entitled ‘The Future of Professions’, Richard and Daniel Susskind claimed that the work of lawyers has “not changed much since the time of Charles Dickens.” Change certainly looks to be on the horizon now.

Legal DIY

The rise of legal tech comes with a range of benefits. To begin with, it gives consumers far cheaper ways to obtain legal resources. Services provided by the likes of RocketLawyer and LegalZoom give individuals and small businesses low-cost ways to produce legal contracts and other documents. This can encourage increased entrepreneurship, as it gives more people a greater ability to start their own business, which can have further positive economic impacts. Also, individuals will be able to produce documents for the legal proceedings of wills, marriages and divorces, avoiding the hampering costs of hiring legal experts or lawyers.

Law firms, too, can also take advantage of the merits of legal tech. Many of the processes and work conducted by lawyers, such as research, document review and project management are very old. Consequently, these outdated methods can be time-consuming, and, thus, with lawyers billing hourly, can be costly for clients. The rise of legal tech and the advancements of the technologies powering it may, therefore, be welcomed. Such technology has the potential to make law firms more efficient, lowering costs for firms as well as their clients.

For example document review, a tedious process in which all parties involved in a case sift through their documents and data determining which are relevant and which are not, can be sped up with the use of technology like Ebrevia. This tool utilises artificial intelligence to conduct document reviews more effectively. The company claims that its technology is 10% more accurate, as well as 50-67% faster than its human counterparts. It also claims to be highly secure with the use of “powerful encryption technology.”

The emergence of such technologies will be supported by many businesses, big and, especially, small, who grapple with the growing costs of lawyers. The top law firms in Britain and America, for example, have significantly increased their fees over the years. In the 1980s, according to the Centre for Policy Studies, £150 to £175 per hour was the typical fee charged by top partners at London firms. In 2015, it has reached as high as £850 an hour, and the figures for 2016 are predicted to be over £1000. America has seen its top 74 firms generate more than $1 million of profits per partner, according to The American Lawyer. Such expenses can cause businesses and individuals to resort to desperate measures, such as simply searching Google for legal advice; it would make any lawyer quite uncomfortable to know that their client preferred to trust a rather unreliable source over their hard-earned professional advice.

But legal tech can offer quality advice absent of excessive fees. RocketLawyer offers its services at just £25 a month, which includes a one-month free trial. There are even technologies which allow people to avoid expensive trips to court. Buyers and sellers on the internet can use the dispute-resolution tools available on websites like eBay to settle legal conflicts as opposed to taking the issue to court. Modria is a legal startup that provides such dispute-resolution software for companies online. In the Netherlands, a government-provided platform called Rechtwijzer, which people pay €100 for access to, helps couples handle divorce proceedings. The Dutch government plans to offer services dealing with employment disputes and other areas soon.

The Digital Lawyer

The expense and outdated methods of the legal industry make it ripe for disruption. Legal tech startups are providing the technologies that have the potential to change the legal industry drastically. But much of the technology being distributed by these new firms are having an effect on the processes of legal work, but no direct impact on the rules and court decisions resulting from it. The idea that computers could one day decide court rulings remains a far-fetched idea, but its supposed impossibility is being challenged.

Artificial intelligence is a technology that is allowing computers to perform tasks that many thought only humans could be capable of doing. Big data allows computers to analyse large amounts of information relating to human behaviour to help perform typically humanised tasks. Can the improvements in these technologies help make computers capable of performing those tasks which have forever belonged to the unique workings of human beings?

Two North American university professors certainly seem to think so. In 2015, Anthony J. Casey of the University of Chicago Law School and Anthony Niblett of the University of Toronto wrote an academic paper titled ‘The Death of Rules and Standards’. In it, they discuss how the lawmakers of tomorrow will be able “to use predictive and communication technologies to enact complex legislative goals that are translated by machines into a vast catalog of simple commands for all possible scenarios.” The professors conjured up the idea of ‘micro-directives’, a new form of law which will be able to provide advice to citizens and firms about how they can comply with the law of the land whilst adapting to each unique individual context to provide more accurate and, thus, reliable legal information.

Such technology can be used to answer complex legal questions on a range of issues, such as taxes. Instead of taxpayers relying on tax authorities using vague rules to determine whether they are complying with the tax code, the use of micro-directives allows them to find the answer with ease. They simply turn to a machine to provide them with legal answers quickly that consider their specific situation.

This can even be used in the courtroom. Machines could be used in the decision to set bail, for instance, as the utilisation of predictive technology and big data can provide more consistent rulings than a judge. Consolidating together information about the defendant’s characteristics, medical history, employment situation and other relevant information allows machines to determine whether bail would be suitable, possibly better than any judge ever could. The world’s increasing reliability on machines and computers over time justifies this possibility.

Immune No More

Harold Laski, a British political theorist and economist, acknowledged that experts enjoyed “a mystery into which the uninitiated cannot enter”. But the continuous advancements in technology are beginning to prove otherwise. It is likely, though, that specialist experts in law will still be needed by the big businesses that can afford their services, but an array of small businesses and ordinary individuals will certainly embrace the changes brought upon by legal tech. Lawyers may not be so keen initially, as their precious profession falls victim to modern technology, probably changing it forever.