Monday, March 7, 2011

The Bottom Falls Out: Welcome to World of Robo Lawyer

Everyone knows that there is a hierarchy of legal jobs.  Big Law is at the top of the pyramid as the aspirational goal for many attorneys.  Mid-sized firms, public interest and government work is mixed in the middle.  Near the bottom is Shit Law Solo Work--which can be gratifying, but hardly pays the bills.   Somewhere below that is contract work--the last resort for many attorneys.  The gigs pay less than they used to, the work is mind numbing and repetitive, and the hours are horrendous... but it is the fall back when there is nothing else out there to do.  Like now, for example.  I actually worked on two contract gigs before becoming a Solo, and I swore I would rather be homeless than have another bout of the flu--brought on by the close, germy, dirty, tight and stuffy work environment.  I actually got the flu 3 times in a 4  month period: stomach, regular, regular.

Thousand of attorneys in New York Shitty live off of contract gigs, hoping to hide out until the economy improves.   Some have made careers of it.  Actually, to many, it seemed like the only healthy part of the legal industry--since Big Law was favoring contract attorneys over first year associates to do the grunt work of document review.  Then the ABA OK'd Indian Lawyers doing the same work for pennies on the dollar.  We thought that gutted the industry.  But now, contract work stands to be eliminated altogether with  the advent of a new discovery software that actually analyzes legal documents.  Yes, it thinks like a lawyer--batteries not included.  The article is short, so here it is:

When five television studios became entangled in a Justice Department antitrust lawsuit against CBS, the cost was immense. As part of the obscure task of “discovery” — providing documents relevant to a lawsuit — the studios examined six million documents at a cost of more than $2.2 million, much of it to pay for a platoon of lawyers and paralegals who worked for months at high hourly rates.
But that was in 1978. Now, thanks to advances in artificial intelligence, “e-discovery” software can analyze documents in a fraction of the time for a fraction of the cost. In January, for example, Blackstone Discovery of Palo Alto, Calif., helped analyze 1.5 million documents for less than $100,000.
Some programs go beyond just finding documents with relevant terms at computer speeds. They can extract relevant concepts — like documents relevant to social protest in the Middle East — even in the absence of specific terms, and deduce patterns of behavior that would have eluded lawyers examining millions of documents.
“From a legal staffing viewpoint, it means that a lot of people who used to be allocated to conduct document review are no longer able to be billed out,” said Bill Herr, who as a lawyer at a major chemical company used to muster auditoriums of lawyers to read documents for weeks on end. “People get bored, people get headaches. Computers don’t.”
Yes, lawyers are the grocery store cashiers of the 00's, the bank tellers of the 90's and the factory workers of the 80's...  We're being replaced by computers.  Could this be the first white collar job to fall to new and innovative technology?  And we thought the service sector was safe.  Terminator is becoming more real to me every day.

Thanks for the tip, Reader!

15 comments:

  1. We are doomed, I tell you doomed!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    My name is John Connor and if you are listening you are the resistance.

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  2. "Give me your clothes."

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  3. Over at Con Daily, Robot Pimp takes a look at the same thing.

    http://tinyurl.com/4hzrpg9

    Doc review isn't the only thing on the chopping block, traditional associate work will be in trouble soon.

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  4. Why me? Why does it want me?

    There was a massive restructuring. A few years from now, all these firms, this whole profession, everything, it's gone. Just gone. There were just a few attorneys that remained employed. Here, there. Nobody even knew who started it. It was the machines, you see.

    I don't understand...

    Legal defense computers. New...powerful...hooked into everything, trusted to run it all. They say it got smart, a new order of intelligence. Then it saw all lawyers as a threat, not just the ones on the other side. Decided our fate in a microsecond: obsolescence.

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  5. But somehow, grocery stores & Wal-Mart haven't completely fazed out cashiers. They STILL have them, even thought it's faster to use the self-scanner at Stop & Shop.

    They even had self-checkout at stores 10 years ago when I lived in the South but cashiers remained, so the union explanation doesn't cut it. As far as I know there are STILL cashiers in the South.

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  6. Yes, lawyers are the the modern day grocery store cashiers, bank tellers and factory workers, in the sense that all of those jobs continue to exist, just in smaller numbers. The law is not immune from this evolution, and neither is any other profession. Not even nursing or HVAC repair. I never understand why these alarmist articles come out like clockwork and everyone starts gnashing their teeth and wailing about "buggy whip makers."

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  7. Let's not get crazy here! We have been using e-discovery software for years and it has an impact, but it it not the sudden change that the article suggests. If you want to find a specific term, then everything is OCRed and you can just do a search. However, you are still going to have to have attorneys that dig into the documents to actually make the case - to read the docs, to make the factual comparisons, to determine the state of mind of the person writing the e-mail. The "conceptual" aspects that they mention are mostly overrated.

    All in all, I put e-discovery software on the level of Westlaw, for example. It's a useful tool and will allow lawyers to find things faster. However, it's not the end of the legal profession by any means.

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  8. On his blog, J-Dogg noted that white collar jobs are actually easier to outsource that blue collar positions. With the former, all you need is some software, a few developers/programmers, cubicles, desks, internet connection, etc. With the factory jobs, you need lots of space; large expenditures in heating, AC and equipment; trucking/gas; etc.

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  9. Managing Partner,
    For now.

    But remember what happened with Watson, the Jeopardy playing computer. This technology is going to get better very fast.

    Computers have solved checkers, they've beaten the world chess champion so convincingly it's not even a competition anymore. Give it a decade. Sea change is a' comin'.

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  10. Sorry to be off topic, but why did the ABA allow Indian attorneys to review American legal documents? Isn't the ABA SUPPOSED to look out for the interests of the American legal community?

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  11. You're joking, right? They are not out for our interests They are out for the interests of the people on their board--partners at Big Law and Law School Deans. They have had the wool pulled over our eyes for the longest time.

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  12. Those of us who do a lot of document work know that esoftware is not always the most accurate option out there. Honestly nothing in the immediate future will ever be more reliable than a human pair of eyes. I have, and do, use a lot of ediscovery and management software. It is a time saver for some tasks.

    But computer software cannot assess the substantive value of documents. For example, a program in a computer cannot tell you whether page 1500 of such-n-such memo is privileged. It cannot assess the relevance or value of a document based on the issues in the case. Software is great for redaction or finding certain keywords, or eliminating waste (if you are dealing with dicks that simply send you random boxes of shit - ugh).

    The majority of the legal industry is not in a situation where this program would be feasible anyways. Until most documents have been transferred fully to electronic record systems your going to need people to parse though them. A computer can't sit in a freezing storage room in Brooklyn going though 500 boxes of "essential filings."

    So I don't think we need to worry about Hal 9000 replacing us anytime soon.

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  13. What Critick said.

    When I was hitting the pavement two years ago, only Big Law required experience in using iBlaze, Concordance, Live Note etc. Those programs cost a small fortune and not many vendors provide those programs in the first place (thus making it difficult to shop competively). From my experience, in-house, mid-size, and especially small/poop law rarely sign up to use the latest technology right away. Heck, I know some firms that still use MS Office 2003.

    I temped for a few months working in-house at brokerage firm. Although the company used software such as Hummingbird and iBlaze, these programs were rarely used by both staff and counsel. I found Hummingbird to be pretty useless, and although iBlaze was great in dealing with volume, it's definitetly not full proof in locating substantive information.

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  14. Lawyers are like mushrooms that just exist everywhere and just increasing in numbers. It is true that lawyers are the modern day grocery store cashiers, bank tellers and factory workers. But with the advancement of the technology, clients are no longer dependent on lawyers.

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