As covered extensively in my Law 2050 posts, many legal industry commentators believe legal technology will undergo amazing advancements in the next decade as the combination of big data, machine learning, natural language processing, and artificial intelligence bears down on law. I’m one of them! But many also dread this disruptive prospect, worrying that it will eat away at billable hours and replace many lawyer functions with machines.
Advancements in legal technology are nothing new. Lexis and Westlaw surged onto the scene in the early 1980s to offer all sorts of better, faster, more accurate ways of conducting legal research. Law was teching up before then, and has been ever since. Did the lawyers of those early law+tech days dread the onslaught of computers, software, the internet, and all the other new gizmos? Not as far as I can tell.
Browsing through past issues of the ABA Journal offers a revealing and often humorous glimpse into the past of law+tech. Indeed, perhaps the best way to trace the history of legal technology is through the journal’s advertising pages.
I could not find any evidence of ads for legal technology prior to 1950, likely because legal technology before then consisted of a typewriter and a telephone, and not much was happening with either. The February 1953 issue, however, contains an ad for the Autograph, a contraption that allowed a lawyer to record dictation and conversations. Remington also placed an ad for a compact typewriter. Now we’re talking!
The March 1960 issue contained ads announcing the invention of the transistor (by Bell) and touting the advantages of new inventions like Edison “portable” dictating machine, the Voicecaster speaker phone, and the Thermofax copier capable of churning out one page every 4 seconds!
The January 1969 issue contained just one technology ad, for the Friden “automatic writing machine.” This contraption made a “paper tape” copy of what was typed, thus spelling “the beginning of the end of the typewriter.” What’s “paper tape”?
Most of this technology posed no threat to the demand for lawyers’ time and wisdom—it was mostly about convenience and speeding up clerical work. In the April 1974 issue, however, Wang announced its 1200 Cassette Typewriter, which because of its simplification of editing was billed as “giving you more time to be a lawyer.” Of course, assuming that lawyers previously billed their editing time, this also meant (by today’s reasoning) that the new machine would cut into lawyer billings. But I can’t find any evidence that lawyers thought that way then.
Jumping forward to the June 1983 issue—on the cusp of the office computer age—one finds scads of law+tech ads for products to improve office management, but also some offering to change the way lawyers do their work. The Prentice-Hall Phinet, for example, put all of their loose leaf tax news service into a searchable software package touted as “a new concept in tax research” that would “revolutionize your tax practice” (never mind that the dedicated terminal was the size of a small fridge). West also introduced its Instacite service. This trend continued through the 1980s. For example, in the June 1988 issue, along with gobs of ads for practice management software, Matthew Bender announced its complete bankruptcy practice software designed to simplify document drafting and assembly and other tasks normally performed by a lawyer.
Interestingly, by the February 1999 issue, most of these ads had disappeared, with Lexis and Westlaw being the only law+tech entries offering to help lawyers be lawyers. Lexis and Westlaw have continued to dominate law+tech advertising in the journal, but more recently other products have entered the fray, such as Bloomberg BNA, Fastcase, and others familiar to today’s practitioners.
What’s more interesting, though, is that none of the prior waves of law+tech were greeted with the kind of dread one hears today, including in the pages of the ABA Journal. Although I have not systematically researched the journal, only three articles mention the term “legal technology” prior to 1990, whereas it became a consistent theme by the mid-1990s.
Why did lawyers of the past (well, I’m one of them!) not dread Lexis, Westlaw, the conversion of paper to online, the internet, Google, and all the other technologies that made practicing law more efficient and effective? Why is there so much dread today? One answer may be that the legal market in the 1970-2005 time period was an ever-expanding universe, so it really was a good thing to be freed of the tediousness of research, document drafting, and so on. Being more efficient did not mean fewer billable hours. Today that’s different.
But I think it runs deeper than that–it’s existential. The current evolution of law+tech threatens to cut into not just billable time, but the essence of what it is to be a lawyer. The profession is being forced to reexamine itself and make sense of the possibility that even more of what was in the lawyer’s domain can be done by a machine.
Ultimately, though, my prediction is that lawyers will come around to appreciating what Wang offered as solace for its 1200 Cassette Typewriter many decades ago: the law+tech advancements we will see over the next decade will “give you more time to be a lawyer.” Having slogged through endless document reviews and research rabbit trails as a young lawyer in the 1980s, I think that’s a good thing!