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Friday, June 27, 2014

The Guardian on Robots Replacing Lawyers

From Josh Blackman's Blog, I learned about this article in The Guardian which contemplates the rise of technology and automation in advanced professions, including the practice of medicine and law.

From the article:
"What I often say is that the future of law is not Rumpole of the Bailey, and it's not John Grisham," explains ["legal futurist," Professor Richard] Susskind. "It's not a version of what we have today slightly tweaked. It will be people working in the legal sector but offering legal services and legal help in new ways." It may be the end of the profession as immortalised in courtroom dramas, but as software eats the old jobs it will have to create new ones too. 
. . . 
Five years ago, entrepreneur Charley Moore founded online legal services provider Rocket Lawyer. It now boasts 30 million users. Subscribers pay a monthly fee for instant access to pre‑prepared documents and tutorials, as well as online legal advice from experts at participating firms. The work lawyers on the network do has already begun to resemble the streamlined, one-to-many roles Susskind predicted. 
Moore is optimistic about the revolution computerisation has unleashed in his sector. "I don't think of [software] as consuming the industry, as much as I think of it as supporting the industry. So with software, certainly there are mundane, routine tasks that will become more efficient, but by making those tasks more efficient, lawyers will be able to move up in the food chain and serve millions more legal transactions than they currently can."
I have written previously about whether lawyers could replace robots when it comes to the job of writing motions. I think that machines would not be capable of writing persuasive arguments or statements of fact in legal briefs. But I think that machines could excel at certain aspects of the legal process. Machines may be better than attorneys or judges in the sentencing context, since a failure to state components of a sentence in a ruling may end up invalidating that portion of the sentence. And machines could probably write the procedural history section of briefs due to the formulaic and tedious nature of this particular type of legal writing.

One may reply that good human writers can turn procedural history into an entertaining affair. Consider, for example, the beginning of Justice Roberts' opinion in Stern v. Marshall:

This "suit has, in course of time, become so complicated, that ... no two ... lawyers can talk about it for five minutes, without coming to a total disagreement as to all the premises. Innumerable children have been born into the cause: innumerable young people have married into it;" and, sadly, the original parties "have died out of it." A "long procession of [judges] has come in and gone out" during that time, and still the suit "drags its weary length before the Court."

Those words were not written about this case, see C. Dickens, Bleak House, in 1 Works of Charles Dickens 4-5 (1891), but they could have been. This is the second time we have had occasion to weigh in on this long-running dispute between Vickie Lynn Marshall and E. Pierce Marshall over the fortune of J. Howard Marshall II, a man believed to have been one of the richest people in Texas. The Marshalls' litigation has worked its way through state and federal courts in Louisiana, Texas, and California, and two of those courts—a Texas state probate court and the Bankruptcy Court for the Central District of California—have reached contrary decisions on its merits. The Court of Appeals below held that the Texas state decision controlled, after concluding that the Bankruptcy Court lacked the authority to enter final judgment on a counterclaim that Vickie brought against Pierce in her bankruptcy proceeding.[1] To determine whether the Court of Appeals was correct in that regard, we must resolve two issues: (1) whether the Bankruptcy Court had the statutory authority under 28 U.S.C. § 157(b) to issue a final judgment on Vickie's counterclaim; and (2) if so, whether conferring that authority on the Bankruptcy Court is constitutional.
Justice Roberts certainly shows us a nice way to lighten up discussion of complicated procedural history. But the proponent of robot-writers could argue that a computer could achieve a similar result. For instance, a programmer could simply add a layer of code providing that if the computer's rendition of a case's procedural history is a certain number of lines or longer, then the computer should insert a pre-programmed, quoted selection from the first chapter Bleak House before the statement of procedural history.

Will robots replace lawyers? In some areas of the law, probably not. But I would not be surprised if the passage of time and the resilience of ingenuity eventually produced machines that could outperform humans in some of the more mechanical areas of the legal process.

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