Computer says “Yes”

Whilst many predictions about the decline of lawyers are based on the likely impact of ABSs far more important (although likely linked) is the potential impact of technology (neophytes in the field – like me – are encouraged to read Richard Susskind’s books). I was interested to see this NYT story drawn to my attention by Richard Zorza’s excellent blog. The NYT story reports how the considerable challenges posed by disclosure of massive amounts of electronic documentation in litigation [or disclosure post-Woolf] is being re-engineered by “e-discovery” software, “can analyze documents in a fraction of the time for a fraction of the cost.” (citing Blackstone Discovery‘s analysis of 1.5 million documents for less than $100,000). Nor is it just a matter of programs finding documents with particular terms within them. It appears such software can:

  • extract relevant concepts— even in the absence of specific terms;
  • deduce patterns of behaviour that lawyers examining millions of documents would have probably missed;
  • use linguistic approaches that, “filter documents through a large web of word and phrase definitions. A user who types “dog” will also find documents that mention “man’s best friend” and even the notion of a “walk.”
  • use sociological approaches to see who did what when, and who talks to whom (sounds a bit like network analysis to me but within a times series)
  • can visualize chains of events and identify discussions
  • can capture “”digital anomalies” that white-collar criminals often create in trying to hide their activities.” such as, “when an employee decides to hide a particular action by having a private conversation. This usually involves switching media, perhaps from an e-mail conversation to instant messaging, telephone or even a face-to-face encounter.”
  • can recognize the sentiment and/or detect subtle changes in the style of an e-mail communication (“in an e-mail message — whether a person is positive or negative, or what the company calls “loud talking” — unusual emphasis that might give hints that a document is about a stressful situation.”)

The implications for legal work are likely to be significant. Speeding up, and rendering cheaper and – in some (but perhaps not all) ways more powerful – relatively mundane tasks. There is some suggestion in the story that this leads to a hollowing out of work. Mid-level jobs are replaced by automation but low and high level jobs remain. Take a look the comments are pretty funny too.

See also:

http://www.patrickjlamb.com/archives/hourly-rates-and-alternatives-computers-replacing-lawyers-its-already-happening.html – great 60% accuracy quote

And this excellent post from Chris Dale on the impact on lawyers with some very useful links:

http://chrisdale.wordpress.com/2011/03/07/king-ludd-and-the-lawyers-%E2%80%93-e-discovery-and-the-luddite-fallacy/

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About Richard Moorhead

Director of the Centre for Ethics and Law and Professor of Law and Professional Ethics at the Faculty of Laws, University College London with an interest in teaching and research on the legal ethics, the professions, legal aid, access to justice and the courts.
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