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Two New Techs Shaking Up the Law Field


We’ve spoken at length about the tough market for law school grads, but we’ve paid less attention to the reasons why so many aspiring lawyers are having so much trouble finding jobs. Part of it is simple over-saturation—in the boom years of the late 1990s, law schools proliferated and churned out more lawyers than the market could bear—but many of the problems are due to the automation of routine work. Just as factory employment declined as assembly-line workers were replaced by more efficient machines in the late 20th century, low-level white collar workers are losing positions to machines as well. In today’s legal market, computers and software are now doing much of the work that used to be performed by paralegals and entry-level law grads.

Over the past two weeks, Tech Crunch has profiled two new technologies aimed at altering the way lawyers and law firms do business. The first is known as SimpleLegal, a program which reviews every invoice sent by a law firm, looking line-by-line for suspicious charges or long billing times for simple tasks. While the program won’t do a lawyer’s work for them, it will make it considerably easier for clients to review the lengthy invoices law firms send. This could help cut down on legal costs and reduce lawyers’ ability to over-bill for basic work:

SimpleLegal takes as much friction out of the bill review process as possible. All a customer has to do is ask their law firm to copy SimpleLegal on each invoice, and then the magic starts to happen. SimpleLegal’s system ingests the invoice and parses each line item into its database. Natural language processing systems figure out who billed what and for how long — and then that data is run through a machine learning system that flags outliers. One example: the system flagged a line item where a professional billed a half hour for mailing. That might not be too unusual but for the fact that the system knew the thing being mailed was a one-page form. That’s pretty smart.

The second program is known as Casetext, designed by two lawyers distressed by the high cost of legal research databases. Casetext is essentially an open-source alternative to systems like Lexis and Westlaw, and it allows users to search legal databases themselves while reading added content provided by other knowledgable users. The system has yet to launch, but if enough people join and contribute, lawyers may soon be able to access high-quality legal information for free, without paying for expensive database services:

How are [Lexis and Westlaw] able to erect these enormously profitable paywalls? The answer is that they provide more than just the raw text of the law. They provide search tools and additional, value-added content on top of the law itself. The two legal research titans, Lexis and Westlaw, employ lawyers to read cases and other legal materials, categorize them, add commentary, and link them together. These services have legitimate value because they all save lawyers time, and time is money […]

The key idea behind Casetext is that the annotations that drive Lexis and Westlaw’s bottom lines can be crowdsourced. One obvious parallel is Wikipedia, with its hundred million man-hours of user contributed content, but Huey and Heller also point to Quora for its high quality answers by professionals and experts in various fields.

Both of these programs could have a significant impact on the legal field, and while neither is likely to cause many lawyers to lose their jobs, they are a strong sign that tech-based disruption in the legal industry is only growing stronger as time goes on.

[Law scales image courtesy of Shutterstock]

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  • ljgude

    Computers never keep amazing me how they disrupt old categories, businesses, ways of doing things. And as a long time student of Marshall Mcluhan I understand that is exactly what technology does and have been aware for over 40 years that computers are an unprecedented technology. Old Marshall also pointed out that it is part of the human condition to make our way into the future with our eyes firmly fixed on the rear view mirror. Even when you know that disruption is coming, it is very difficult to see exactly where and when.

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