Automated practice of law

Based on a recent blog post by Niki Black with the question “Can you automate the practice of law?” a very interesting discussion has taken place in the legal community on Twitter and blogs during the last weeks. Niki Black concluded that over the next few years, lawyers who embrace and utilize technology effectively, especially Internet-based and mobile tools, will have a distinct advantage over those colleagues who turn a blind eye to emerging technologies. She then noted that automating the practice of law can oftentimes be a difficult proposition, and while technology could replace certain aspects of lawyering, the legal advice and advocacy of a trusted advisor was a decidedly human factor that was irreplaceable.

The discussions following this post, with inter alia Jeff Brandt, Toby Brown, Keith Lipman, Greg Lambert, Jordan Furlong and others, provided very interesting aspects on the feasibility and likelihood of automating the practice of law. In the 3 Geeks and a Law Blog post “The First Time a I Saw a Computer Practice Law” the conclusion was made that the ability for technology to perform lawyer tasks has been around now for 30 years, but that the profession has never put much effort into trying to automate lawyer functions. An aspect that might explain the aversion was raised by Jordan Furlong in this comment to the blog post: “We risk creating problems when we use terms like “replacing lawyers” and “automating lawyers” in this discussion, because they pit human against machine and create a larger and more dramatic context than we require for this issue. I think we should be focusing instead on the identification and performance of lawyer functions. What do lawyers do? Make a list: in any practice area you choose, it’ll be extremely lengthy. Then ask: which of these functions can be performed at least in part with an automated process or system? The answer, I think, is: virtually every one of them. And that includes the supposedly safe old standbys like “strategy” and “counsel”: huge databases of business and legal intelligence will be able to provide increasingly reliable indicators of how various tactical approaches will pan out.”

An area where automation technologies really have been widely used to develop new innovative services is in the online legal document market. Recent research reveals that there is a market worth £53m, but that “it is no place for the faint-hearted” (RBP On-Line UK Legal Documents-2012).  In the Legal Futures summaryit is analysed that “The only winners in the online legal documents business are those supplying services to the likes of law firms, financial institutions and trade associations – rather than selling them directly to the end-user.” and that “The issue for those in the market is how to get heard above all the noise. The only successes are those in the niche of supplying retailers with these tools; the likes of Epoq, Law Donut, Qdos, Hotdocs, LawontheWeb, smarta and Employment Law Essentials have 24% of the overall online documents market, it said, up from 6.3% in 2005.”

As reported in Legal Technology Insider there is also a new Swedish online document assembly service – VQ Legal. VQ Legal provides a new intelligent and efficient solution for creating all relevant documents for a specific legal matter, with a content that is updated and quality assured. The difference between VQ Legal and other template document providers is the intelligent assembly of the document and the ability to create multiple documents with information entered just once by the lawyers. The solution can be integrated and accessed directly from a law firm or legal department’s internal systems and the documents can also be edited to have the same look and feel as documents produced internally. And, in line with the recent research above, the service is directed to legal advisers and in-house counsel departments, to provide assistance in automating some of the lawyer functions.

When it comes to automating lawyering functions, document automation is an area that is now increasing. Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati and Cassels Brock & Blackwell are two law firms that have implemented document automation tools and who share their experiences in the Practice Innovations Newsletter articles “Deciding on Document Automation” and “Document Assembly as a Means to Improved Client Service”: “With recent changes in the legal market and economic conditions in general, law firms and in-house legal departments increasingly have sought to provide legal services in a more efficient manner. One area that has seen increased emphasis is document automation. Document automation tools allow end users to automatically generate documents based on information furnished in response to an online questionnaire. Document automation can play a critical role in providing legal services in a more efficient and effective manner, but in deciding whether to implement document automation, it is important to consider the full range of potential benefits and their relevance to your business, as well as your readiness for document automation and the full extent of the investment required.”

Even though several new products have entered the legal market in recent times, making affording opportunities that were not previously available, the level of competence and skills required to implement a document automation tool should not be underestimated. This observation has also been made by Professor Richard Susskind in his book “The end of lawyers?” when defining a new legal profession for legal knowledge engineers.

But, implemented in the right way, a document automation solution is a fantastic tool that can provide huge leverage and form a basis for innovation and improved legal services, clearly providing the firm using it with a competitive advantage. And as Toby Brown points out: “The ability for technology to perform lawyer tasks has been around now for 30 years. Isn’t about time we started using it?”