Can Tech Really Ever Replace Lawyer Magic?

Professor Oliver Goodenough, professor of law at Vermont Law School, raises a question about the role of artificial intelligence in the legal profession: Is what lawyers do really special enough to rule out automation?

The conservative–and still widely held view of established practitioners–is that there is something inherently special, even magical, about lawyers. Professor Richard Susskind, a lawyer, and technologist puts it frankly: “Many lawyers regard legal work as highly bespoke. Their clients’ circumstances are unique and each requires the handcrafting or fashioning of a solution, honed specifically for the individual matter at issue. This is the conception of legal problem-solving that is impressed upon law students in many law schools, where it seems that all problems put before them have features so distinctive that they could require the attention of the Supreme Court.”

Legal magic: Losing its Enchantment?

In the UK, where a so-called “Magic Circle” of firms dominates the industry, some are arguing that these historically powerful and seemingly untouchable institutions are losing their magical touch.

However, the traditional magic of law is being tested fiercely by all-comers, in all parts of the world. Not least by those paying for legal services. Michael A. Troncoso, Managing Counsel at the University of California, attending Codex, a Stanford program that explores how information technology can enhance legal processes, maintained that he was dismayed by interactions with “magic” lawyers: “I buy a lot of legal services and I am a frustrated consumer many times. When I ask an attorney how much this litigation is likely to resolve for, it’s a shaman-like process of ‘I have been doing this for 20 years and my gut says…’. That is so uninteresting to me. There is a lot of data out there now.”

On this last point, for instance, predictive litigation AI analyzes past legal reference data to provide insights into future outcomes, being perfected by companies such as Premonition, Allegory, Intraspexion, Gavelytics and Lex Machina. 

Legal buyers have started to look behind the curtain. Mark A. Cohen, who runs a legal consultancy, noted in Forbes that the legal culture still promotes “lawyer exceptionalism as justification for its guild-like operation“ and that hubris was acting to perpetuate this environment.

Could Muggles Take Over?

One thrust of this law-as-magic debate concerns cloudier distinctions between lawyers and “non-lawyers”. Engineers and those who are not lawyers have strode into the legal arena, upsetting many myths. This is vividly demonstrated with the launch of an app last year by 22-year-old entrepreneur (non-lawyer) computer science major at Stanford University, Joshua Browder. The DoNotPay app offers AI-powered legal counsel that can be used to “sue anyone by pressing a button”. The chatbot works by cutting through the hocus pocus of legalese, instead, asking a series of basic intelligible questions about your situation and who you’d like to sue. It will then draw up the documents that you’ll need to send to the courthouse to become a plaintiff and will generate a script for you to read from if you need to attend in person. In addition, in a recent study, carried out with leading legal academics and experts, the LawGeex AI achieve an average 94% accuracy rate, higher than the lawyers who achieved an average rate of 85%. It took the lawyers an average of 92 minutes to complete the NDA issue spotting, compared to 26 seconds for the LawGeex AI. 

Dark magic of lawyer exceptionalism still strong

The exceptionalism myth remains strong from most of the profession. But slowly distinctions are changing as people have sought to bridge gaps between muggle non-lawyers and pure blood practitioners. Legal marketing professional Heather Morse contends that the term “non-lawyer” is offensive and a disservice to all of the legal firms that are being run as businesses (given that “non-lawyers” could potentially assume leadership positions), while Am Law Daily’s Gina Passarella argues that use of the term non-lawyer reflects “all that is rotten about the law firm caste system”.

The rise of AI: new magic?

However, with an increase of 65% in legal tech companies utilizing AI in 2018, are we just replacing the language of legal magic with tech magic? Hasn’t the legal AI industry been equally responsible for talking in the same coded language of innovative solutions, using magic buttons to fix old problems? Should lawyers just be throwing machine learning at all of their problems?

In a VentureBeat panel on the impact of machine learning, Anthony Goldbloom of Kaggle, a platform for predictive modeling and analytics, believes that machine learning “is not magic”, not least as “you need to have a significant volume of labeled data in order for machine learning to be useful.” Erbil Karaman of ride-sharing firm Lyft adds: “The way you create magic that is not easy to copy is by leveraging your network and leveraging your unique data. The way we look at creating magic is always really trying to dig into what’s so unique about our network and unique about our data, creating unique data sets and doing something with it that no-one else can.”

Modern magic for lawyers 

Modern lawyering requires a fusion, tailoring tech, and AI to highly skilled lawyers. This is producing modern magic. Lawyers are being forced to move away from artisanal intransigence to new approaches.

Lawyers are increasingly required to be business leaders including making use of tech and new processes. Use of automation is allowing lawyer’s time to be free up for more impactful strategic activity. For instance, despite all the myriad qualifications lawyers can point to, the most common skill lawyers put on their profile has nothing to do with law – but is in fact “management”.  In addition, skills related to “business” comprise the top words used by companies when recruiting a GC, based on an analysis of 100 job ads for General Counsel in the US. Business is mentioned 306 times across 100 job adverts, beating second-placed compliance (257 mentions). In contrast, traditional legal expertise such as knowledge of “agreements” (113 mentions), “risk” (107), “contract” (67) and drafting (57) are notable for their scarcity. Though proud of their skills, lawyers increasingly recognize they have far more to offer than ancient spells. 

From the 2019 General Counsel Landscape https://www.lawgeex.com/resources/gclandscape/

David Field, Canon Australia’s chief legal counsel, puts it this way: “As a lawyer, it’s very easy to get excited about how you draft a clause, how you draft a pleading, or how you craft a piece of advice”. He adds: “It’s very good to take pleasure in the quality of it and have a sense of quality and craftsmanship in what you do, but it’s also important to think about relevance and the extent to which society or the communities we serve need that craftsmanship. When I work or when I talk to my team, I’m very focused on that sense of how we add value for the business, our customers, and our clients. It’s about exercising really strong empathy. It’s about putting yourself in the shoes of the business, thinking about the business’ needs, and not getting too caught up in the technicalities of your role.”

The new lawyer: magician, artist

In his essay, The Lawyer as an Artist, Professor Roger Abrams, former Professor of Law Northeastern University School, assesses the lawyer/ artist/magician’s historic role, and how it must change.

The real lawyer magic in the future, he suggests, is the ability to “rethink unbounded”. Though legal tech was fairly limited when Abrams wrote about lawyer-artists he was nevertheless painting a picture of a new breed of professional as out of the box thinkers, experimenting to become true magicians. He says: “Lawyers-as-artists working as practitioners, scholars, and judges may not always find the right answers but they search for them in new and creative ways. They reach out beyond traditional notions of law and policy to move the law to better serve society.” He concludes that real magic involves not just looking to the past but being able to “rethink those principles we have come to see as fixed and immutable”.

For this new army of legal leaders—using tech, embracing new realities and flexing new skills—this is a truly magical time. 

Jonathan Marciano, Director of Communications at LawGeex



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