Thursday, May 10, 2012

Can computers provide legal advice?

Sure.  If not for the most sophisticated "bespoke" legal problems, then it's certainly true for routine ones like a client's request for an estate plan.  Over at 3 Geeks and a Law Blog, Greg Lambert explains that more than 20 years ago he worked on a software program that was capable of offering estate planning advice.  So why haven't more routine attorney functions like that been automated by now?  Greg thinks it's merely because attorneys haven't pushed especially hard for that kind of innovation.  That's not so surprising since these are innovations that threaten a lawyer's livelihood just as Orbitz and similar sites helped put travel agents out of business. But is there any doubt that we're soon going to see the automation of many attorney functions and that it's going to have a profound affect on the demand for the flesh and blood kind?

More from Greg:

The First Time I Saw a Computer Practice Law

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.

. . . we haven’t put much effort in to automating lawyers. This tells me there is likely numerous ways in which we can automate. . . . .  The ability for technology to perform lawyer tasks has been around now for 30 years. Isn’t about time we started using it?


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And computers can give advice about how to handle bequests, if any, to the troubled relative? The financially reckless child? The aunt with whom there is an on-going feud? Whether trust beneficiaries should be permitted to withdraw 1/3 of the principal at age 25? 26? The point is that one of the important values that lawyers add to the estate planning process is judgment, which is wholly lacking in computers (and in most of the people who program them). Computers can be helpful tools to assist the estate planner, not only in running the complex tax computations (federal, state, and local; income, estate, gift, inheritance), but also is providing checklists, and dealing with boilerplate clauses. The notion that law can be automated is as narrow as the law student notion that learning law is nothing more than learning legal rules. Yes, it's possible that eventually a computer can be programmed to have judgment that it develops on its own, but that's a long way off.

Posted by: Jim Maule | May 11, 2012 5:12:17 AM

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