Are Attorneys Becoming Extinct?

By Karen Federman Henry

Recently, I spent some time going through the accumulated legal journals on my desk. As I turned from the ABA Journal to the Maryland Bar Journal, it became more and more evident that many technology tools may have started to threaten the need for humans in the practice of law.

The first article, by Bryan Garner, reassured attorneys that the ability to read for pleasure can be regained. Apparently, a common malady of attorneys arises through the years that interferes with reading every word in a paragraph and leads to an inability to savor the thoughts or emotions the written work should evoke. This results from combing cases and statutes for a significant point along with the pressures of time—who can justify billing a client for enjoying the prose of a Supreme Court opinion? The remedy for this affliction is simple: Read for pleasure and force yourself to read every word and enjoy the writing style of the author. The antidote does not require that you read lengthy or complicated works, only that you read without skimming.

After taking comfort (or justification) from this license to read at a more leisurely pace, I kept reading the ABA Journal. Imagine my surprise, however, when I learned that someone has invented a program to review contract documents! Admittedly, it is described as a tool, not a substitute, for attorney review, but it made me wonder whether it could replace the need for an attorney much like grammar and spelling programs are relied on to correct written works. If a computer can be programmed to review contracts, could it also be taught to draft pleadings and briefs?  Farfetched, you might say, but consider the ability to draw from the electronic filings that soon will exist in the Maryland court system. Moreover, many briefs already reside in legal research systems that are accessible by many more people than just the parties involved in the case. And computers keep filling many formerly human activities—they defuse bombs and perform surgery, so why not craft legal documents with the right pieces of information loaded into a program?

By now, my imagination hit full-speed wondering what would be next—online legal advice? Before I could dispel this crazy idea I saw another article describing an online service that offers virtually instant legal advice for a minimal fee! All a person has to do is subscribe to the service, which receives the person’s question and distributes it to attorneys who have applied to handle questions. An attorney has to respond to the service within 15 minutes and then answer the client within the following 15 minutes. While some might say this is the wave of the future, it also raises many issues about conflict-of-interest and the strength of the advice. Time will tell whether instant advice can be as useful as old-fashioned meetings with a client in person followed by research and evaluation.

Turning to the Bar Journal, I saw the update on electronic filing in the Maryland courts. We have seen this coming for a while and it shows promise for reducing storage problems and expediting the filing process. Despite all the good traits of electronic filing, the question remains whether it is just one more step toward rendering attorneys obsolete. At some point, more forms will exist that individuals can complete and submit without an attorney’s assistance

Despite futuristic science fiction movies in which machines take control of the world, I prefer to believe that reading for comprehension will remain a uniquely human trait. We might be able to “train” a computer to locate certain terms or phrases that might help expedite legal review, much like past weather events assist in predicting today’s sun or rain. However, the ability to identify inconsistent thoughts in a document, and the skill needed to provide syllogistic logic that persuades a judge, requires a level of analysis that should delay the complete extinction of the need for human attorneys. At least, I hope so!

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