Robots and Lawyers: Why Can't We Just Be Friends?

February 02, 2016

Google “robots and lawyers.” What do you get? The first few pages of my results are about 80% predictions of lawyers’ demise, 10% claims of lawyers’ supremacy and 10% ads by lawyers seeking clients maimed by robots. A welcome new addition to these results is “Can Robots Be Lawyers? Computers, Lawyers and the Practice of Law,” by UNC law professor Dana Remus and MIT professor Frank Levy. The authors demonstrate that their question — “Can robots be lawyers?” — is a complicated one that deserves less hyperbole, a deeper understanding of tech and greater respect for the professionalism of lawyers. Their piece is the most thoughtful analysis I’ve seen of automation’s impact on legal practice. It’s well worth the read for lawyers aspiring to tech excellence.

But what if, instead of obsessing over how tech will impact lawyers, we became preoccupied with how tech will impact clients? What if we traded our lawyer-centric perspective for a client-centric one?

Lawyer-Centric and Client-Centric Perspectives on Technology

Can computers be lawyers? Can computers do what lawyers do? Will lawyers be replaced? Are lawyers being replaced? Should lawyers be replaced? Is this the end of lawyers? These questions presume that lawyers do the right things and do them well in every legal situation. Their focus is on whether, when and how tech will do those same things.

The problem with this lawyer-centric perspective is that legal services exist for clients, not lawyers. If that proposition seems iffy to you, ask yourself: do transportation services exist for drivers or for riders? Do medical services exist for your doctors or for you? Do educational services exist for your kids or for their teachers?

The Legal Services Corporation tells us that “only a small fraction of the legal problems experienced by low-income people (less than one in five) are addressed with the assistance of a private attorney or legal aid lawyer.” That finding reflects a failure of our professional mission. The lawyer-centric perspective is partly to blame, because it leads us to consider the crisis addressable mainly by more lawyers, more hours and more funding – “solutions” that likely will not materialize in any meaningful way. While we tout our millions of hours of pro bono service, we remain indifferent, and sometimes actively opposed, to tech that could help scale pro bono service to something approaching the 100% access to justice goal set by our courts.

If we could move toward a client-centric perspective, we might learn to appreciate technology not as a threat but as a powerful ally in our mission to help clients avoid and solve legal problems. We might harness technology to have a greater impact. Our large institutions – firms, bar associations, schools, among others – might do more to embrace opportunities to construct guided interviews, prepare DIY legal videos and other materials, implement document automation systems and even act as triage counsel for the large volumes of clients who need help diagnosing legal needs and finding right-sized solutions.

Shedding the Lawyer-Centric Perspective

So how do we get beyond the lawyer-centric perspective?

It starts with accepting the fact that we are not indispensable to every kind of legal situation faced by every kind of client. Nor are we essential to every component of legal service.

We are critical to the system as a whole, and many particular legal situations demand the best that human counsel can offer. But for some situations, we are needless at best. For some activities, we are inferior to computers. For other activities, we can do more, better, faster and cheaper for clients with technology than without it.

Once we accept our own limitations, we can focus directly on client needs and work to match those needs to the lawyer service, tech service or hybrid service best suited to respond.

Preserving Professional Values in a Tech-Enabled World

Practicing a client-centric perspective does not mean we yield the legal services field to every programmer or entrepreneur claiming to offer an “artificially intelligent attorney” or an “easier, smarter, affordable” way to handle legal needs.

To the contrary, it means approaching technology as open-minded skeptics. It means focusing our inquiry on whether a given technology, either on its own or in our hands, is good for clients. It means experimenting with new technologies and legal service models. It means serving as rigorous testers and rich sources of constructive feedback. It means proactively trying things, questioning marketers’ claims and demanding proof. It means championing values like security, privacy, trust, reliability and efficiency. It means caring less about who or what is delivering legal services and more about the quality of results. It means evangelizing for tech that promotes client interests and leading the pitchfork brigade against tech that does not.

Far from conflicting with our professional values, this role allows us to express them in a new, powerful way. The question isn’t whether technology threatens lawyers. It’s how lawyers will respond to this opportunity to serve clients better.


Originally appeared in Bloomberg Law’s BigLaw Business