Image [cc] William & Mary Law Library

Niki Black, Jeff Brandt and some others have been having a Twitter dialog on the extent to which computers are currently able to replace lawyer functions. Part of the discussion centers around defining what is meant by replacing lawyers, which falls in to the old debate of what exactly is the practice of law?

Niki offers up a classic criterion as “’advice’ is counsel given to client based on the facts of a case (or legal matter).” At 3 Geeks we have previously discussed some next-generation technologies that I feel fall into this category. However, Niki is looking for simpler, solo/small firm examples. The crux of the discussion is whether there truly is technological solutions to replacing lawyers. I will share my bottom-line thought here: Yes, I think there is. My main point is that the profession has never put much effort into trying to automate lawyer functions.

This discussion brought back to mind the first time I watched a computer practice law. And it was a solo/small firm example.

Back in the 80’s while in graduate school I was a librarian at a branch office of a regional firm. I was in the room when they delivered the IBM XT PC and therefore became the expert on its use (a.k.a. the beginning of my legal tech career).We had purchased the PC as we were a beta site for a document generation system for wills and trusts. A partner at the firm was involved in the start-up efforts of what would become HotDocs. And since this software ran on a PC, we had to get one.

With the program loaded up we began playing with it (which we now call QC). I answered a series of questions about my personal needs related to an estate plan, giving what was essentially ‘the facts of my legal situation.’ Well in to the questioning a yellow screen popped up and ‘gave me advice.’ I do not remember the specific advice, but the gist was that based on the my situation, I should consider changing my answer to the last question about what I thought I would want, since that did not fit with my situation. I recall distinctly sitting back and thinking – Wow. I just witnessed something unique. A computer giving me real legal advice.

So to the Twitter discussion – I repeat my assertion, we haven’t put much effort in to automating lawyers. This tells me there is likely numerous ways in which we can automate. To Niki’s point of view, there is still not much out there. This last point is well-taken. The ability for technology to perform lawyer tasks has been around now for 30 years. Isn’t about time we started using it?