Is it possible that we are on the verge of introducing the first, fully fledged, digital lawyer to our profession? Let's think about this. IBM debuted the 5151, its personal computer, in 1981. Apple introduced Apple Lisa, its first personal computer, in 1983. Those personal computers were small and convenient. Their commercial/industrial counterparts were huge, foreboding, and needed to be clustered in air-conditioned rooms. Nonetheless, since then, a number of professions dependent on providing individualized and customized services immediately gravitated toward rethinking the delivery of their services with great success.
The architecture and engineering professions, as well as the academies who taught those professions, were among them. As an undergraduate architecture student in the 1980s, I vividly remember that digital frontier. We were asked to essentially take an artisan craft and reduce it to data entry on a desktop computer, and to subjugate all that essentially drew us to the profession. Admittedly, it was a horrific experience. But we actively participated in and informed the fundamental shift that was occurring in the delivery of architecture and engineering services. As a result, the many refinements to the computer applications that we explored as college students matured into industry juggernauts.
Take, for example, computer aided design (CAD) technology. Very few practicing architects actually used the technology in the early 1980s, while many of the leading design and engineering academies did. CAD was either too expensive, time consumptive or represented abhorred data entry. And for a generation of student designers and engineers who declined to embrace CAD, they graduated into a marketplace that no longer placed as much value on the art of drawing by hand when a computer could do it faster and better.
Over time, CAD's utility, efficiency and eventual ubiquity were unmistakable. It spawned many other applications, compelled changes in the way design services were delivered, and demanded the education of a new breed of professionals. This is clearly evident in today's 6D Building Information Management (BIM) software, which allows the design, building and building management industries to track a building from design and construction to post-occupancy, life-cycle cost analysis.
For the legal profession, it seems our 1980s moment is now. The explosion of web-based legal services has pushed the debate on the delivery of legal services to an unthinkable frontier. Whether it is a question of legal research, automated document preparation or nuanced decision-making, the eventual commoditization of what we do is here. The human lawyer's virtual monopoly on legal reasoning and the delivery of legal services is being slowly eroded by sophisticated computer programs.
Some of these programs, such as Apple's omnipresent Siri, can even find you a lawyer with one click on a mobile phone. I recently asked Siri the following: "Siri, I need a good personal injury lawyer in Seattle." Her response, you wonder? "I found a number of personal injury lawyers. 21 of them are in Seattle. I've sorted them by rating." Whoa, only 21 ... and you sorted them by rating even! I wonder ... why so few? Who or what rated the lawyers?
But putting aside those questions, some will query the wisdom of relying on Siri to find a personal injury lawyer. And I agree, even as I noticed some well-respected, local PI lawyers on Siri's list. Yet the impact of programs like Siri and the digitization of our profession are unmistakably clear.
Ten years ago, one could hardly imagine the questions I have been pondering. The answers to those questions were once the stuff of science fiction. But clearly times have changed. When we hear about alternative billing systems, virtual office models, firms that eschew associate training, web-based document management systems, outsourced legal research, or even automated scanning and searching of documents for keywords, the discussion is dated. Because, like the BIM technology to most design firms today, the leading edge of the legal profession has shifted from cloud-based server services and virtual offices to something else.
So, are we ready to rethink the delivery of legal services from the top down and bottom up so that we do more than automate discrete existing processes, but find ways to automate large segments of, if not the entire, process? Are we ready to identify and automate the delivery of our non-premium products with sophisticated computer programs and bill them at fixed fees, while repackaging premium products beyond the capacity of computers and bill them at premium rates? Are we ready to compete in a marketplace that is already in part giving away our non-premium products?
Well, we need to be ready. In the midst of a historic recession, our profession has been joined - yes, joined - by sophisticated algorithms that collect, at lightning speed, factual data and legal decisions, analyze relationships and make decisions, while replacing expensive, slower and newly minted lawyers. If you have not heard about the new arrivals, the various web-based legal services are called: Rocket Lawyer, Google Scholar, FastCase, Legal Zoom, Koncision, Cybersettle, Fairoutcomes, Neota Logic and .... More are bound to come.
Take for example, Koncision Contract Automation. It is an entirely web-based subscription service that provides lawyers with document-assembly templates for business contracts.1 The company's founder and president is Kenneth A. Adams, the author of A Manual of Style for Contract Drafting (ABA 2d ed. 2008). I can already think of a number of legal documents that automation programs, like Koncision, will begin to generate.
Then there is Neota Logic. Here is what Neota Logic says about itself: we "deliver the knowledge of experts in an operationally useful form-as expert systems that can be consulted interactively online or embedded directly in business systems. We transform expertise into answers and action-in law, compliance, risk management, accounting, human resources, environmental regulation, medicine and other fields."2 Neota Logic went one step further, taking a page from CAD's 1980s playbook, and worked with Georgetown University Law School to teach the course "Technology, Innovation, and Law Practice" this spring. In that course, Georgetown law students created software applications to answer real-world legal questions.3 The goal of the course was to effectively assist (or even replace) a real lawyer making a practical decision on a real-world problem.4
How about Cybersettle?5 Here is how Cybersettle bills itself: "... the world leader in accelerated dispute resolution. We pioneered and hold patent rights to the automated, online, double-blind bid, dispute resolution system, which allows our clients to resolve a wide range of claims quickly and confidentially."6 If you think that statement was mere company website puffery, consider this. In 2009, New York City Comptroller William C. Thompson issued a press release that stated in part:
My office began using Cybersettle in 2004 with the goal of saving the City money in claim settlement costs. I am proud that my office has met that goal and been able to save the City an estimated $70 million over the last five years.7
Finally, there is Rocket Lawyer.8 Created and launched in 2007, for a monthly or annual fee, Rocket Lawyer will allow you to create an unlimited number of legal documents (using Rocket Lawyer templates). First, you, the client, are prompted to input your factual information. Then once your document is complete, it is generated for your review. Then you are prompted to select from one of Rocket Lawyer's registered lawyers in your jurisdiction for an attorney review of the document you generated. Rocket Lawyer works in partnership with Lawyers.com to develop its attorney listings, which exceed 100,000.
For those who are still circling the wagons of traditional legal practice, I hear you. But I have another observation. Last year, IBM's artificial-intelligence, room-sized computer called Watson, developed at the T.J. Watson Research Laboratory in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., debuted. A computer, designed to sift through encyclopedic volumes of information in milliseconds, evaluated questions posed in natural language as convoluted and opaque as nuanced speech, and answered to defeat two "Jeopardy!" champions. I imagine that many in our profession, and many other professions for that matter, refused to see the implication in Watson's success. It was a breakthrough moment befitting the phrase incorrectly attributed to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's fictional character, Sherlock Holmes: "Elementary, my dear Watson!"
Quite like the architecture and engineering design firms of the 1980s that ignored CAD's methodical invasion of their artistic domain, Watson ushered in computer advancements that will not bode well for those who rigidly adhere to a traditional law firm practice model. We need to do more than aspire to go paperless and, for example, add object codes to standard firm documents to allow for "smart" searching comparison across jurisdictions (or from lawyer to lawyer within one office for that matter).
We need to embrace technology that evaluates documents relative to current case and statutory law and identifies potential problems. Smart searching across applications and platforms, cloud computing, automated factual and legal analysis, automated decision-making, standard language document generation, mobile phone lawyering, and free web-based legal content are the future of our profession.
I could go on. But I will not. For those of us who consider the practice of law an artisan craft, incapable of replication by a computer, I ask you, as an architect-turned-lawyer: Are you ready for Siri Watson, Esq.?
KCBA President Richard E. Mitchell is a Shareholder at Graham & Dunn PC, where he practices in the Real Estate Group. You can contact Richard at email@example.com.
4 3 Geeks and a Law Blog (www.geeklawblog. com), "The Next Generation of Computers Practicing Law," May 15, 2012.
7 NYC Office of the Comptroller, Press Release August 18, 2009, "Cybersettle Saves the City of New York Time and Money."