Appellate Advocacy Blog

Editor: Tessa L. Dysart
The University of Arizona
James E. Rogers College of Law

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Using Innovative Tools Instead of Letting Them Use You

Angry-Robot-by-schwegel-FWhVbz98rhci-1160x772“Computers are useless. They can only give you answers.”
― Pablo Picasso

If you follow my posts or talks lately, you know that I love technology and innovation. The clients we serve, the people who need legal help and can't get it, and the tightening legal market can all benefit from new technologies and new ways of approaching problems. I won't belabor the point. Survey after study have already done so. 

But like every love, this one comes with challenges. Sometimes I spend more time learning a new tech tool or system than I ever save using it. Sometimes I never save any time at all because, after hours exploring a new app--I realize it's hogwash. Not everything needs fixing and often the simplest and oldest methods are the best ones.

Yet for every failure or frustration, I find an incredible tool that works wonders. And with the mountain of challenges and opportunities we lawyers and law students are staring down, we can't afford to ignore those tools. That goes doubly for us law professors looking to empower the next generation of attorneys. 

But in training lawyers how to better use technology in their practice, I often run up against some version of the same problem: Technophobia. Rather than engage with new innovations and figure out how they can be useful, some folks reject them on principle. Maybe they had one of those failures or frustrations I mentioned earlier. Maybe they think the tool or system looks too complicated, so they fall into a cognitive bias like overkill backfire (a bias I'm researching for an article, which causes people to reject more complicated-sounding solutions even when they would work better). 

I get it: Innovating is tough. There is no easy switch to flip. It's about changing your perspective. Becoming more resourceful. Opening your mind up to new roles, new platforms, and new ways of lawyering. From how you get business to how you write briefs. It's not that you have to go find some fancy app for every single thing you do. But if you want to thrive these days, you do need to seek ways to enhance and expand your skills. And to do that, you have to dig deep and engage.  

Writing bots provide a nice case study on this point. A slew of law professors emailed me in recent weeks asking how they can use writing applications like BriefCatch and Grammarly to help law students fill their writing style gaps. I and many others have encouraged profs to try incorporating new technologies like these in their classrooms. Not only do they offer new perspectives for students and great meta-learning opportunities--but they help students pick up basic tech skills. Given that legal employers now rate tech competence as more important than knowledge of the law, that seems a good approach. 

Some professors are conflicted, though. Like the rest of us, they know their law students need help with writing mechanics. But handing off training to a robot is scary. What if it teaches them the wrong things? What if the student spends money on the tool and it ends up useless? A guest recently offered similar thoughts in a post on this blog. All great questions and worries to raise. 

But concerns like these can easily lead to the overkill backfire bias I mentioned earlier. It can feel easier to discount or outright dismiss new tools rather than engage deeply with them and see what useful things they offer. I think a lot of it comes down to the difference between using tools and letting them use you. If you expect a new app or method to revolutionize your practice without any input from you--bad news bears. It isn't happening. Tools are tools. Most of them can do something useful (or at least teach you something). But you have to work at it. 

This was my approach to incorporating writing bots in my own classes. I taught using Microsoft Word's built-in grammar and style features for years (I still teach Microsoft Word basics in my writing classes--check out this article for some ideas of what I cover).  I also used other applications to help students with their writing mechanics--like Hemingway App and Writer's Diet. But as writing apps became more sophisticated, I tried them out. And I found tons of new tools that opened up exciting teaching opportunities for my law students and the lawyers I work with. 

For example, with tools like Pro Writing Aid, my students could see the length of their sentences color-coded--giving them a visual insight into their writing that other tools can't. Tools like PWA can also do cool things like highlight the parts of speech for students, helping them home in on the mechanics visually. 

Then you have legal-specific writing tools, like BriefCatch. For the first time, we had writing apps made for legal writing. Tools that could help law students and lawyers get better at spotting many of the same style improvements that we law professors encouraged--like cutting legalese and jargon. 

At first blush, you might wonder whether a tool like BriefCatch is worth it. After all, even Word has several helpful style checks to improve your writing. And some other free tools can help, too. But BriefCatch is a great example of why digging deep into new innovations is worth it. It turned out there was a lot there for my law students (and me for that matter). 

To give you a concrete example, I wrote an amicus brief a few weeks ago. After I gave it a good polish on my own, I ran Word's grammar and style checker. As always, I had all the advanced style and proofing recommendations checked, like these: 

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Word gave me thirteen style recommendations. Not one of them ended up being all that helpful. A few could have been good teaching opportunities--they suggested a comma after a sentence starting with a conjunction. I would have pointed out to students that most good legal writers wouldn't put a comma there, but some folks disagree.

What's frustrating (and always frustrated me when I used Word's style function as a teaching tool in the past), is that tons more of the recommendations are plain wrong for legal writers. With all of Word's features checked, you end up with pages of highlights that are wrong for legal writing. Often in citations, like these: 

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BriefCatch, meanwhile, gave me 24 suggestions with highlights. Not one of those mistakes Word made was replicated by BriefCatch.

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Many of these would have made for great teaching moments. For example, the below suggestion gave me several options for rewriting some wordy prose. Word didn't flag any suggestion for the same phrase. Giving students options helps make the writing process less overwhelming while still allowing them to self-direct their learning. I do this all the time with my own lessons, and here BriefCatch is doing it for me: 

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Other BriefCatch suggestions included: 

  • Several recommendations for using a better verb (something that Word says it can help with, but rarely does and did not do in this document). Each of these came with options--a great self-directed learning opportunity for students. I used most of these recommendations to come up with better verbs--sometimes on my own, sometimes using the suggestions. 
  • Bluebooking issues, including some commas I forgot to italicize. I love this feature, especially for 1Ls trying to build good citation habits. Obviously Word didn't catch any of these. 
  • Multiple passive voice constructions that Word did not catch (despite having that feature enabled). Each would have been a fantastic teaching opportunity. A few were passive on purpose to deemphasize the actor; a few worked better in the active voice. 
  • Many suggestions for cutting legalese and jargon. Not a one was caught by Word.  
  • The report feature gave me a simple snapshot of my sentence lengths as well as some words I overused (I know I need to stop saying "indeed" so much!). 
  • A handful of other suggestions for tightening up my prose, most of which I used after thinking about them for a while. 

Oh, also, not a bad score. I felt a bit empowered (sorry Word--learn how to praise me better): 

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I use BriefCatch for this demonstration because I've found it to offer the most writing-style teaching moments for my law students (no, I haven't gotten paid for talking about BriefCatch or the dozens of other tools and apps I've written articles about). And my point is not to cast shame on Word. Nor would I ever discourage folks from questioning whether a new tool or gadget is worth its weight. Not only in money, but also in time. 

But exploring new tools and innovations and looking hard for what they might offer you is worth it. 

Joe Regalia is a law professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, William S. Boyd School of Law and regularly leads workshops training legal writing and technology. The views he expresses here are solely his own and not intended to be legal advice. Check out his other articles and writing tips here

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/appellate_advocacy/2019/11/dont-throw-new-tools-out-with-the-bathwater.html

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