Saturday, March 30, 2013

Much of the legal work that "leads up to the courthouse door" can be better performed by algorithms

That's one of the key ways Professor William Henderson says the nature of legal practice is changing which means tradtional lawyers will be increasingly replaced by "legal entrepreneurs." Professor Henderson's essay called Losing the Law Business is available here at the Legal Whiteboard blog. An excerpt:

To cope with globalization, the world needs better, faster, and cheaper legal output.  The artisan trained lawyer just can’t keep up.  To address the productivity imperative – or, more accurately, to turn a profit from this business opportunity—a new generation of legal entrepreneurs has emerged.

Lawyers continue to have a lock on advocacy work and client counseling on legal matters.  But an enormous amount of work that leads up to the courthouse door, or the client counseling moment, is increasingly being “disaggregated” into a series of tasks that does not need to be performed by lawyers.  Indeed, it may be best performed by computer algorithms.  Further, the entire process is amenable to continuous improvement, driving up quality and driving down costs.  This is a job that is likely more suitable for a systems engineer, albeit one with legal expertise, than a traditionally trained lawyer.

Although this change may sound radical, it is actually the logical next step in an evolutionary progression that began in the early 20th century as the practicing bar transitioned from generalist solo practitioners to specialized lawyers working together within law firms.  Now, as clients search out ways to stretch their legal budgets, specialization is losing market share to process-driven solutions, akin to how Henry Ford’s assembly line methods supplanted craft production.

. . . .

Perhaps the best example of new entrepreneurs serving corporate clients is the large number of vendors working in eDiscovery and document review. The explosion in digital data over the last 10 to 15 years has made it untenable to continue using expensive law firm associates for an exhaustive manual review. 

Initially the work went to registry services, which assembled large crews of temporary low-wage “contract” lawyers for large document review projects.  After building a sufficient data infrastructure and security controls, the work flow has gradually expanded to legal process outsourcers (LPOs) in places like India, where a fraction of the wages paid to U.S. contract attorneys could attract highly motivated and able Indian lawyers.  Having achieved sufficient success and scale, the best LPOs are now turning to process engineering, combining this highly motivated and able labor with superior technology and workflow design. 

More recently, new vendors have emerged who specialize in “predictive coding.”  In a case that considered acceptable methods of conducting electronic discovery, a federal judge in New York City reviewed studies comparing the cost and accuracy of computer-based machine algorithms (predictive coding) with manual human review.  Finding that the predictive coding was at least as accurate as manual methods and reduced the number of documents for human review by a factor of 50, the judge ruled that predictive coding was judicially reasonable in many cases involving large numbers of documents.

Although many large U.S. law firms may perceive document review as “commodity” legal work not worthy of their efforts, the new legal vendors getting into this space are remarkably well capitalized.

Continue reading here.

(jbl).

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/legal_skills/2013/03/much-of-the-legal-work-that-leads-up-to-the-courthouse-door-can-be-better-performed-by-algorithms.html

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