Thursday, September 1, 2011

Legal Technology: Change is Coming

A transformation is taking place in the legal technology industry. An article article by Paula Hane in InfoToday entitled "Upstart Legal Services Gain Traction", highlights a number of new online services that are challenging traditional models - both in technology and legal practice. (Disclosure: there is a nice section on Tabulaw's research and writing platform and our tax26.com site.)

Pressures on lawyers and law firms to become more efficient, and to adopt advances in technology are now becoming publicly visible in a number of ways. One of them is the rise in online legal services that Hane describes in her article, another is the turmoil surrounding high law school tuitions and the weak market for new lawyers, a third is the growing interest in legal information from technologists and technology companies (e.g. legal content on Google Scholar and Google Venture's investments in LawPivot and RocketLawyer).

These changes highlight two essential components of law: information and judgment. A comment on judgment first:

Judgment
Engineers often make the mistake of assuming that the entire function of law can be outsourced to technology. That thinking is fed by a certain line of thinking that runs straight up to the Supreme Court, that judgment is just the application of law to facts, like Chief Justice Roberts' "balls and strikes" analogy at his confirmation hearing. That suggests that judgment can be replaced by an algorithm. That, I hope, is not the direction of improved legal technology.


Information
Where legal technology shines is in distilling information in a form that makes it easier for a decision maker to apply good judgment, and which clears out much of the information overload that surrounds many legal issues. The tech world is only now touching the surface of what can be done to distill the information of law, which is just text after all. As an example, a friend of mine, Itai Gurari, is building an engine that can identify the relevant legal points in a court opinion (check out his search engine, Tracelaw, here). If you want to get involved in this exciting field, a good place to start is with state statutes and by helping us with the first ever California Law Hackathon.