The Exponential Law Firm - Part 1

The following is the 1st part of a 4 part post expanding on my short introduction to an ILTA session entitled, Do Robot Lawyers Dream of Billable Seconds? If you have not yet listened to the full session (and you have nothing better to do for the next 90 minutes), you should go listen to it now. If you would like to download and read the entire 4-part post you can get it here.


During World War II, a “computer” was a person who calculated ballistic trajectories and published the results in books and sets of tables that were given to artillery units and battle ship commanders. These computers were mostly women who manually processed the calculations applying complex mathematics and their substantial brain power to the task. They worked in teams, checking and quadruple-checking each other’s work, as incorrect results could quite literally affect the outcome of the war and lead to the deaths of many soldiers on the front lines.

After the war, many of these computers were instrumental in programming and debugging their brand new, building-sized, electronic namesakes. Today, the term computer is never used to refer to a person.

These women were certainly not the first laborers to lose their jobs to machines. The industrial revolution had seen many manual labor positions replaced by newly developed engines, from coal powered steam shovels, to electric sewing machines. But these “computers” were probably the first knowledge workers (people that rely on their brain processing power rather than their physical skill) to lose their jobs to machines.

Over the last seventy years that process has continued unabated, with ever smarter electronic computers tackling more complex and complicated knowledge work. And at every step of the process the next profession in line had a million and one reasons why “a computer could never do what they do.” But today we live in the world of IBM’s Watson. Watson is not a miracle, it’s the natural progression from those World War II era computers, to ENIAC, to the Personal Computer revolution, to the Smartphone, and eventually to a computer that beats the best humans at the most difficult of human games; Chess two decades ago, Jeopardy a few years back, and Settlers of Catan every night on my iPad.

More impressive than my iPad beating me at a popular German board game is the Watson victory on Jeopardy. Computers are now exhibiting what were once considered uniquely human abilities: parsing and processing natural language, understanding puns, and double meanings, and then determining the intention of the questioner in order to select a correct solution from many plausible answers. That is not terribly far removed from parsing the exact meaning and intention of legal documents and then determining an appropriate course of action based on precedent and prior analysis. The legal profession should be on notice: the computers are coming.

What do we sell?

A few years ago I asked a number of my friends and colleagues from other firms three questions:
  1. What do Lawyers think they sell?
  2. What do Law Firms think they sell?
  3. What do Clients think they are buying?
While none of the respondents gave the same three answers, they all agreed that there were separate answers to each question. That kind of confusion leads to all kinds of marketplace chaos and I tried to suggest a common answer, that we were selling “access to the collective knowledge and expertise of the firm.” That was not a satisfying answer to me, even then. The question has continued to nag at me ever since, and after much consideration, I am ready to suggest a new answer: We sell Legal Processing.

That doesn't feel emotionally satisfying either, but the more I think about it, the more convinced I am that that should be the simple answer to all three questions. Clients typically come to us with legal problems and we run those problems through our legal processing engines (attorneys, established workflows) to produce advice, documents, in person counsel, or any of the other things we commonly produce for clients. So, my original answer wasn't wrong, it just didn't go deep enough. Lawyers are selling their legal processing time, law firms are selling their collective legal processing ability, and clients are buying the legal processing that they cannot or do not want to do internally.

Much like the computers of World War II, the lawyers of 2014 continue to do most of that processing using their biological processing units. These brains, as we call them, are extremely energy efficient and fast, but are slow to train, prone to fatigue, often make mistakes, and are notoriously difficult to network (not to mention the hardships of managing them).

Digital Legal Processing

In recent years, we have entered a new era for the practice of law, the digital era. The digital era probably began in earnest with the explosion of e-discovery solutions in the last decade. These tools were not simply technological means of improving the analog workflow, like a Document or Contact Management System, these applications were beginning to do the actual work that previously required lots of young associates with a great deal of management supervision. With predictive analysis, many fewer associates could do the same work in much less time, more accurately.

I have seen no fewer than 5 contract review applications in the last few months that promise to reduce processing time and to increase accuracy by large percentages. Eventually, these tools will most likely replace biological processing units entirely. Even now, a large document review that relied entirely on human ability, engaging no computer assistance at all, would most likely leave a firm open to a malpractice suit. It is not a huge stretch to imagine a time in the near future, when biological processing interference of any kind, might do the same.

E-discovery and contract review applications are one type of digital legal processing. They are essentially highly skilled and ever improving pattern recognition tools, but obviously the practice of law does not boil down to simply better pattern recognition. It also requires an understanding of current laws, an ability to apply a client’s particular circumstances to the current laws, and to make inferences, calculations, and recommendations based on that understanding of the law. This is where Expertise Systems enter.

Expertise systems allow firms to capture an individual lawyer’s (or an entire practice group’s) knowledge and understanding of a particular law, in a way that allows other lawyers or clients to use that knowledge, even if they do not have access to the original lawyer(s). In other words, with an expertise system, it is possible to build legal processing engines that handle the routine aspects of practicing law, leaving the novel and unique to be handled by the firm’s biological legal processing units (attorneys).

Everything to this point is preamble to the next concept.

(Tomorrow: The 6 Ds: An Exponential Framework)

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