More on those robots

I’d like to offer a bit of an explanation of my chosen first title. The robots-vs.-lawyers moniker was a somewhat tongue in cheek reference to the intro given to my interview of Richard Susskind available on Radio Berkman.
Nevertheless, robot lawyers are making news.
South African law firm Buys Inc. plans to offer a trio of “robot lawyers” to answer client questions. Perhaps disappointingly, they’re not actually robots but actually an anthropomorphic addition to the GUI for a system to answer client questions, presumably greatly increasing firm efficiency and profitability. I tried to track this one down further, but only got as far as a very brief online article.. (In fairness, the definition of “robot” might vary in South Africa. What Americans call “traffic lights” are called “traffic robots” in South African English.)
Another South African company is marketing a product Jnana (from a Hindi word meaning “knowledge”). Doesn’t use the word “robot” but promises to help build “virtual lawyers.” From what I understand, this program can help companies build their own systems for compliance and other legal needs. A company you know of might be using Jnana for its own internal issues, even though you or I can’t access the system with our own questions.
An American company is also marketing something it calls “Robot Lawyer,” although this appears to be software meant to increase the productivity of real lawyers.
The robot terminology is, unfortunately, a distraction. Like the term “artificial intelligence” it is wrapped in pop-culture images of R2D2 and Dr. Who that obscure the real thing. The important fact is that computer programs are performing jobs previously thought to require a level of sophistication available only from humans.
As Richard Susskind points out, lawyers still have a job to do designing all these systems. Until these software systems can become self-replicating, some lawyers will still have jobs building these things.

Not all is lost, lawyers
Lawyers in the United States can at least temporarily feel much more secure in their jobs than their colleagues elsewhere. Note the proliferation of non-U.S. innovation in the technology of law field.
Lawyers in the United States have been quite good at guarding their turf. This history runs at least as far back as Quicken Family Lawyer’s experience in Texas and Norman Dacey’s “How to Avoid Probate.” and surely much earlier.
More recently, in 2007, an online “bankruptcy engine” was held to be engaged in the unlicensed practice of law . It seems inevitable that the system involved would have raised concern sooner or later; on a line reserved for the preparer’s signature, the software printed “not applicable.” On another line designated for disclosing any fee paid for the preparation, the system wrote, “Realizing that this document is signed under penalty of perjury, I declare that I prepared my own bankruptcy by myself using a computer and that I was not assisted by an attorney, paralegal or bankruptcy preparer…” No mention was made of the fee paid for the service.
Presumably the debtor would have had no problem if he had hired a law firm that used a similar program internally and had a human sign off on the filings.
The debtor in the case above paid $219 for six months of access to the “Zilnet Bankruptcy Engine.” It’s tempting to laugh at such not-quite-ready-for-prime time efforts, but when one considers that the cost could be eaten up in the first hour of work with a lawyer, is it such a bad thing for a web-based “bankruptcy engine” to be so cheaply available? In many cases might this be better than no lawyer at all?
What about insurance? Wouldn’t a subscription based software service coupled with insurance be just as good as a much more expensive lawyer? Imagine if the system cost twice as much, but was “backed by (insert reputable insurance company here) to insure you up to (choose level of coverage for corresponding premium) dollars for any loss caused by the system’s error.”
Then the lawyers could still make money on the back end, sorting out litigation brought by dissatisfied customers. Sooner or later someone would get it right, and the cost of insuring the error-free system would trend toward zero.
The pattern could repeat itself through other areas of law. Those who still need fancy “human” services could of course still get them from old-fashioned non-robot lawyers.

– Brock Rutter

Brock Rutter is trained as a lawyer and is a research assistant to Prof. Oliver
Goodenough at the Berkman Center.  His interests include technology driven law practice,  coming changes to the legal profession, and evolving corporate and transactional law in the digital age.  In other endeavors, he is currently programming A2J interview modules to assist pro se litigants in Vermont.

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