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

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
Everything to this point is preamble to the next concept.

(Tomorrow: The 6 Ds: An Exponential Framework)

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Photo of Ryan McClead Ryan McClead

Ryan is Principal and CEO at Sente Advisors, a legal technology consultancy helping law firms with innovation strategy, project planning and implementation, prototyping, and technology evaluation.  He has been an evangelist, advocate, consultant, and creative thinker in Legal Technology for nearly 2…

Ryan is Principal and CEO at Sente Advisors, a legal technology consultancy helping law firms with innovation strategy, project planning and implementation, prototyping, and technology evaluation.  He has been an evangelist, advocate, consultant, and creative thinker in Legal Technology for nearly 2 decades. In 2015, he was named a FastCase 50 recipient, and in 2018, he was elected a Fellow in the College of Law Practice Management. In past lives, Ryan was a Legal Tech Strategist, a BigLaw Innovation Architect, a Knowledge Manager, a Systems Analyst, a Help Desk answerer, a Presentation Technologist, a High Fashion Merchandiser, and a Theater Composer.