Will Powerful Technology Replace Lawyers?

May 1, 2015, 7:39 PM

Lawyers could become legal concierges and should adopt computational law for their practices and stay current with technology, or else risk fading away, according to speakers at the CodeX FutureLaw Conference on April 30 at Stanford Law School.

Oliver Goodenough, a University of Vermont law professor, told the audience at Stanford, that there are things lawyers now do in their heads, which can be done in a machine. “Law is fundamentally a computational exercise.”

“Anything we write in a contract I think can be rewritten in a coded way,” said Goodenough, a visiting professor at CodeX – the Stanford Center for Legal Informatics.

“There is no formal impediment to doing this. There’s just ‘doing it’ impediments and those can be significant.”

The human impulse against being replaced by a machine is principal resistance, Goodenough said. Part of that resistance stems from the belief that the complex process of making determinations about clients is necessarily one that involves a human-based transaction. “Facial recognition processes are probably much more complex than client recognition software,” he said.

Judges and courts already get it and technology companies are pushing it, Goodenough said. “The lawyer as we conceive of it today is the problem, not the solution.”

Those lawyers who “reimagine themselves will do fine. Those who don’t will just fade away,” he said.

Jerry Kaplan, a CodeX fellow and visiting computer science lecturer, told reporters during a luncheon that most tasks lawyers do are transactional, and thus can be done by computer programs.

“This is basically hollowing out computational law, and the tools we have are hollowing out the legal profession,” Kaplan said. Lawyers “become legal concierges” who work at the margins where the law is unclear.

“We’re automating the core of what transactional law” is, Kaplan said.

“Legacy processes don’t go away and the law is an immense legacy process,” Goodenough said. “I think that once we get to the point where we can design contracts directly into the code that the people who are doing that will eat the lunch of the people who aren’t.”

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