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Cannot Compute – The end of the Lawyer is not nigh

25/02/2016 | Chris O'Brien

Driverless cars are on the horizon, computers are winning game shows and robots are disarming bombs. You could be forgiven for thinking that, soon, all of life’s legal problems will also be solved by consulting an algorithm, or feeding the aims and gripes of your business into a computer and receiving the perfect answer almost immediately – and simply and cheaply. Nevertheless, while it is true that, nowadays, many tasks that used to be undertaken by solicitors are automated, the complexity of the myriad situations in which clients find themselves will hinder the rise of the machines.

Whilst computers are useful in delivering efficiencies when conducting specific tasks, clients’ lives are often far too complex for a computer to understand. Solicitors have to deal with requests that require carefully tailored answers on a daily basis – computers are not yet ready to compete with their human masters in these more complicated matters.

In dispute resolution, to take the potentially eye-wateringly expensive subject of disclosure as an example, the use of technology has encouraged an increase in the amount of evidence that may be relevant: in one recent case, a party sought to disclose 25 million documents. The complexity increases when a case spans different countries, languages, cultures and time zones. Processing this deluge of information to create a solid legal argument backed up with witness evidence can be a time consuming and expensive task, as can preparing for a trial. However, technology can also be used to filter the swamp of evidence the other side have created. Law firms like Rosenblatt are far more savvy for having utilised the technology in this way.

When seeking to deal with disclosure, a law firm now has a plethora of tools at its disposal, based upon machine learning, in other words trawling through data to spot patterns between, say, email exchanges, or phrases used within the emails themselves and their subject headers. Whilst this is useful in directing a solicitor’s attention to those documents that may be most relevant, human judgement is still required when deciding whether or not these documents should be disclosed to the client’s opponent. As readers of Private Eye’s Malgorithms will know, algorithms have their flaws. In the same way computers excel at spotting patterns that humans struggle with, computers remain challenged when faced with questions humans find easy – because there are no hard and fast rules. To take one infamous example, humans can easily determine that something be regarded as pornographic, without being able to explain why. In 1964, US Supreme Court judge Potter Stewart struggled to define pornography, only to rule “I know it when I see it”. In the same way, our disclosure reviewers may notice a comment in an email that is suspicious and relevant, but the automated disclosure system has not, because the document did not respond to a keyword that formed part of the search criteria.

Meanwhile, in non-contentious work, automation is also on the rise, such as with regard to preparing contracts. With some systems, completing a questionnaire can produce a final form contract that fits the bill. However, computers frequently miss the subtleties of a deal. For instance, the person answering the questionnaire may not fully understand a query, and having “input the data” incorrectly, causes the contract to miss out a vitally important right or protection.

As frequent pioneers, start-ups recognise the balance to be struck between utilising pro forma legal services and the bespoke variety, such as with regard to the ways in which company ownership is structured. Investors, founders, management and even employees have stakes which are carefully balanced by contracts drawn up by lawyers, with the nuances required by the various stakeholders that a computer fails to understand and provide. Start-ups cannot turn to technology to solve their legal complexities, but to firms like Rosenblatt which are well placed to strike a bespoke deal that underpins the fledgling entity.

Purely digital deal-making also presents an opportunity cost. New companies often struggle to find financing from banks, who cannot lend to firms that do not have assets or revenues. However, as law firms frequently act for financiers or investment banks, they become familiar with sources of potential funding.  As a result, law firms increasingly are able to refer clients to organisations who may be able to provide finance, replacing banks as the key to setting up start-ups’ business, a benefit that would be lost when buying, say, a new company off the shelf.

Courts are also becoming more receptive to electronic communication, another factor that lawyers must take into account. Indeed, there is evidence to show that the group of people prepared to receive important advice over a webcam is growing larger, including business people obtaining commercial legal advice from their lawyers by way of video conference. But what is most important, at all times, is that the client as the end user feels comfortable in receiving such advice through technology.

Any client expects, and is entitled to, the best advice from their solicitor; they also prefer speaking with a human being rather than a machine. However, clients equally crave value and efficiency. It would be foolish for any law firm to pretend that technology is not now a commonplace part of the provision of legal services. However, Rosenblatt is a firm whose history is steeped in a strong understanding of technology and e-commerce. We strive to embrace technology and work hand in hand with what the computers have to offer. But rest assured: at Rosenblatt you will always receive the human touch, and there will always be a person at the end of your call.

 

© Rosenblatt Solicitors 2017
Rosenblatt is authorised and regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA No. 00070109). The registered address and principal place of business is 9-13 St. Andrew Street, London EC4A 3AF.
You can access the rules by which we are regulated by following this link - www.sra.org.uk/solicitors/code-of-conduct.page. Rosenblatt is registered for Value Added Tax in the United Kingdom under registration number GB 523 0713 85.
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