Legal Technologies: Small Steps Trump Big Promises

by Tali Thomason on December 16, 2015

By Guest Blogger, Jennifer Bissell, Managing Director of BlueLine


Legal technology is growing— and seemingly from all angles. There are wide-ranging products and promises, whether it is sophisticated artificial intelligence to replace attorneys or machine-learning systems to reduce e-discovery loads. Yet the impact of these new technologies will be largely dependent on their ability to improve or automate existing steps in the legal process.

Many predict that as machines become better at making human-like judgments they will be capable of producing legal work product. Predictive coding tools have already made their mark in the discovery world by helping cut down on tedious document review. Yet machines still have a long way to go before they can develop legal strategies and construct arguments. In other words, the most difficult tasks for a machine are also the most valuable tasks that a lawyer can perform.

Attorneys provide the most value to clients when they counsel, make legal arguments and resolve disputes. The other work that lawyers do is often in direct support of those primary purposes, but the work is nonessential. Researching, cite checking, quote checking, looking up sources— this is all work that attorneys must currently do in order to support their valuable operations. In itself, these tasks are not ones that clients care deeply about. However they are important and open up a practical opportunity for innovation.

An alternative to building an intelligent system — that may or may not be capable of automating high-value attorney tasks — is to build a less complex system that eliminates low-value attorney tasks. Rather than attempt to automate the whole legal system, the best approach is to automate attorneys’ nonessential “busy work” to allow more time for critical thinking.

Just as Microsoft Excel does not eliminate accountants (it simply helps them do their job more accurately and quickly), legal technology need not threaten lawyers. Our application, BlueLine, is one example of this style of technology. It reads legal writing and hyperlinks all citations to free case law, eliminating a common, yet time-consuming and expensive task. There are several other applications that offer similar incremental improvements on legal practice such as BestLaw and CaseText.

We see this as a small step toward a better industry where attorneys spend less time dealing with the mechanics of looking up cases and quotes therein. These companies are part of a so-called “revolution by a thousand innovations” rather than one. In the short term, we expect the latest legal technologies will not threaten to replace attorneys but will instead allow them to concentrate on their most valuable activities.

Awareness of this development is important to practicing attorneys who care about the trajectory of the legal professional. More importantly, an awareness of this trend is critical for any attorney who wants to maintain a “cutting edge practice.” The price of not being replaced by technology, is the obligation to stay current and learn how best to utilize the many tools that are being developed.

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