Marc Andreessen quipped in 2011: “Software is eating the world”.
- The legal profession is not immune from this development. Law has a high information component. In a large sense, law is information or as Bill Palin, the young lawyer who won the ABA’s Legal Hackathon at last year’s ABA Annual Meeting, says, Law is Code.
We are already seeing how Andreesen’s prediction is working its way through the legal profession.
Predictive coding continues to make inroads in eDiscovery demonstrating that software analysis is more accurate and faster that hordes of associate lawyers clicking on documents on screens. Companies such as Recommind are leading the way.
Last week I attended Conference at Georgetown Law School, co-sponsored by the ABA Journal, called: From Revolution to Evolution: Digital Tools in Legal Practice where a variety of new legal applications were discussed that replace the labor of an attorney. In the hands of an attorney , this software results in faster, cheaper, and better legal work.
One panel, that I was honored to participate in featured Kingsley Martin from KMStandards and Noah Waisberg from KiraSystems formerly DiligenceEngine. Both demonstrated software applications that expedited the document review process in transactional work and rationalized the document creation process. Like predictive coding in eDiscovery these software tools will replace some of the work of associate lawyers in larger law firms leading to a smaller employment force that works more effectively. As Mr. Martin points out — legal software can be good, and lawyers can be good, but lawyers using legal software are best.
The day before this conference, Georgetown Law School, under the leadership of Tanina Rostain , held their Iron Tech Lawyer competition, for the third year in a row. Law students show case legal expert systems that have created using the NeotaLogic legal expert systems platform .This student work is impressive as I witnessed software applications generating legal advice to complex questions with more accuracy that your average lawyer and at the speed of light.
We are still at the beginning of the beginning of these developments, but the pace of change is likely to be more rapid than we think. If you want to become more aware of an impending tsunami of legal disruption read John O. McGinnis and Russell G. Pearces’ law review article in Fordham Law Review, titled, The Great Disruption: How Machine Intelligence Will Transform the Role of Lawyers in the Delivery of Legal Services
On the other end of the legal spectrum from Big Law, there is an estimated $40 billion latent market for consumer legal services yet to be served by lawyers. In 2013, two-thirds (66%) of a random sample of adults in a middle-sized American city reported experiencing at least one of 12 categories of civil justice situations in the previous 18 months. The most commonly reported kinds of situations involved bread and butter issues with far-reaching impacts: problems with employment, money (finances, government benefits, and debts), insurance, and housing. Most consumers handle these problems on their own, or do nothing. Moderate income people rarely seek assistance from lawyers to deal with these legal problems. Either legal fees are too high or they do not understand their problems to be legal. 80% of the U.S. consuming public can’t afford legal fees. This is the often discussed Justice Gap in America that is the subject of an ABA Presidential Commission on the Future of Legal Services and a National Summit on Innovation in Legal Services to be held at Stanford Law School next week on May 2-4, 2015. [See Agenda and Schedule Here. ]
Figuring out ways to have more lawyers serve this latent market at affordable prices has proved to be a challenge. My own view is that scalable solutions must be software solutions. There is ample evidence that software alone can solve the legal problems of everyday consumers. Last year 600,000 users assemble legal documents and resolved their problems without lawyer assistance in over 40 states with the support of the U.S. Legal Services Corporation through Law Help Interactive and legal services programs in those states. This number will continue to increase. Other private legal software companies, such as ShakeLaw, continue to enter the market that offer pure software solutions to the resolution of legal problems at low or no cost.
I often hear lawyers say these solutions are inferior. Last week I also attended in Chicago, an American Bar Association School on UPL and participated in a panel on UPL and new technology. I argued that since the legal profession wasn’t serving 80% of consumers anyway so we should continue to experiment with legal software solutions. There was push back from this group, with some participants arguing that automated legal advice could be the unauthorized practice of law. I argued that in the interest of access to justice we should have a safe harbor that encourages legal software development for consumers, if there were sufficient warnings to the consumer they were not dealing with a lawyer, but a software application.
One state, Texas, has famously passed such an exception to their definition of the practice of law which reads:
‘In this chapter, the “practice of law” does not include the design, creation, publication, distribution, display, or sale, including publication, distribution, display, or sale by means of an Internet web site, of written materials, books, forms, computer software, or similar products if the products clearly and conspicuously state that the products are not a substitute for the advice of an attorney.’
I pitched to this group of UPL officials the idea I would like to see this exception to the definition of the practice of adopted in every state. My rationale is that it would remove a potential barrier to innovation and encourage the development of Internet-based software applications that could help close the Justice Gap. The response was underwhelming.
Despite these constraints, legal software will continue to eat away at the lawyer’s market share. Where there is demand, entrepreneurs will find a way. IBM’s Watson has demonstrated that it could beat the two world Jeopardy champions- not a trivial matter.
More relevant a team of law students at the University of Toronto students has created ROSS on the Watson platform to conduct legal research. ROSS is not only for lawyers. It can be used by consumers to do their own legal research.
Lawyers who deny the power of these software applications to solve legal problems, and the exponential rate of change, have their heads in the sand,