As Satya Nadella so simply put it, technology enables people to do more. Personally, I have to agree with Nadella, and I can see so many places where technology can make lawyers’ lives easier.
I am a little older than the majority of my classmates at law school, so I remember when phones were attached to the wall, information came from books, and the internet was a cutting-edge thing, only available by dial-up – where the little blinking light on the front of a modem was exciting, because it meant that you were now connected to the world. Each technological advancement has undoubtedly enabled people to do more, and legal expert systems will be no exception.
The legal profession is notoriously slow to embrace change, and law schools suffer from largely the same adoption rate. A lot of pressure is put on law students to take a traditional set of courses and to keep with the tried and true. However, whether law students are aware of it or not, what they really learn in law school is how to use their brains like lawyers. Law students learn how to comprehend a focused area of law, in a relatively short amount of time, by synthesizing the relevant legislation and cases along with any additional situation-specific information.
In September of 2017, I decided to break from the larger herd when I chose to take a class on Designing Legal Expert Systems. This is a class where law students design and build their very own (legal) expert systems; I don’t mean in an abstract sense, I mean I signed up to build the expert system that would be capable of being used by its targeted user group. Admittedly, it was a last-second transfer in to the class, which required me to rearrange my entire schedule and join other classes two weeks into the semester, but I am so happy I did. By making the change to get outside the box of conventional law school classes, and outside my own comfort zone, I pushed myself to learn so much more. I made a few posts about my experiences in Designing Legal Expert Systems both on my LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/in/faymehodal/) as well as on our class blog (https://lawinnovation.trubox.ca/) as the semester went along. Like any new adventure, there were ups and downs, and for anyone reading this who has ever ventured outside their comfort zone, you will likely be familiar with how some of those downs can look like nearly insurmountable challenges.
In order to design an expert system, you need to understand the subject matter at a level where you can explain it for an average or lay person to understand. While an expert system is not generally designed to explicitly explain the law, it must work in the background in such a fashion that anyone can use it; this means taking the law and presenting it to the user in a way that the user will understand. The notion of presenting the law so any user can understand sounds easier than it is. I posted to our class blog earlier on about thinking you understand the concept you are trying to explain, and as my group worked on building our expert system, I found our group running into the issue multiple times – where we would have to stop and ask ourselves, ‘but will a regular person understand what that means?’
Law students learn to think like lawyers, but what we often do not learn is how to bridge the gap between the legal framework or infrastructure and the general public. Now, at the end of the holiday break, when law students have been home to see friends and family, is an excellent time for law students to evaluate the differences in thought process between those in law, and those not in law. For those of us that are first-generation lawyers, the differences are likely to be far more obvious. This is by no means to say that people in the legal profession are in some way smarter than everyone else, just that our brains work differently, sometimes very differently, and unless you take the time to actually interact with people who are not in the legal profession, these differences may remain hidden.
The expert system can bridge the gap and assist the lay person with some fundamentals or basics regarding their issue, as well as make the life of the lawyer easier. It is worth noting that, despite many concerns, the expert system does not replace the lawyer, but that is a topic for a different post. To do these things effectively, the expert system needs to be easy to use, and easy to understand – remembering that we expect the lawyer to understand the lay person’s situation, but that we do not expect the lay person to understand the law.
By integrating expert systems into the legal practice, there exists the potential to unleash the brains of lawyers on higher-level problems to solve, nuances to find, and creative solutions to be discovered. I think I am safe in saying that applying a legally trained mind to an issue that an expert system can answer, is not a good use of anyone’s time, money, or other available resources.
Many industries have already experienced changes from technology, and will continue to experience many more in the future. There is no question the tide is changing for the legal profession too, and the time to pivot into efficient law practice is upon us.
When clients seek out a lawyer, they are looking for a solution to their problem. Clients call upon us to find a solution, hopefully the best solution, to their issue, and we as the lawyers seek out all the options available.
For what is likely to be my final blog post for the class, I leave anyone reading with this: the legal profession is about customer service and problem solving / solution finding, so if technology can help us be better at those things, we should, at the very least, consider how technology can enable us to do more.
Lawyers, embrace the new and different, reconsider the things you do simply because you have always done it that way before and ask yourself: is there a better way?