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  • My Legal Briefcase

    Computing the Law
    Posted: 2011-07-13 05:02:47

    H.A.L. 9000It’s amazing how much modern technology can do. There’s a mirror that can read your pulse rate. There is even a robot that cleans your house for you. There are computer programs that can predict the future better than humans can.


    No word of a lie. Computers have come a long way since ENIAC. Given the increase in machines’ ability to compute data and the decrease in the cost of such computation, the credibility of human-generated predictions is fading fast. In terms of storage space and algorithm sophistication, the human brain comes nowhere close to the combined power of a computer and a large data set. In his talk ‘Quantitative Legal Prediction (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Embrace Disruptive Technology)’ (slides here) Prof. Daniel Katz of Michigan State shared his thoughts on the nature of predictive technology and its impact on the legal profession. His statement “ belief in their expertise is their undoing” gives a good indication of his feelings about such technology.

    So, when a potential client asks the million-dollar question “Do I have a case?”, the computer doesn’t say “Wait for me to write a memo.” It takes information from cases that are similar enough to the case in question. Measures of similarity are effectively equivalent to measures of distance, which are determined by algorithms. Katz is a very powerful man because he develops such algorithms (see this paper, co-authored by Katz, about the use of sink distance and clustering algorithms in determining citation networks). Having determined which cases are similar enough to be considered, the computer analyses those cases and tells the user not only what the statistical odds of success are but how sure the computer is that its odds are accurate.

    What does this mean for law firms? It’s likely, Katz says, that providing a potential client with both a client memo and computer-generated odds of success will become standard procedure. Remember that the computers are not replacing lawyers – they are just giving informed second opinions. Given the competitive advantage of having predictive technology, partners are likely to require associates to consult the computer before deciding whether to take a case. Seen from another angle, mass data analysis can benefit consumers of legal services in big ways. The Real Rate Report, an extensive account of approximately four billion $USD in corporate legal fees, found, among other things, that the prices for legal services varied widely by location. The Report is not only an excellent bargaining tool but encourages law firms to set prices that are more beneficial to clients. Real Rate Reports are made possible by the enormous computational capacity that exists, and Katz hopes that similar reports for legal services used by wider swaths of society will be produced. I am happy that the informational asymmetry in the market for legal services is being significantly eroded. Additionally, leaving the menial work to computers is giving lawyers more time to do what they do best: interact with clients.

    Katz showed us the brave new world that we’re entering. I wonder if and how law schools will adapt their curricula to acquaint future JDs with mass data analysis in the legal profession, so that they can be, in Katz’s words, “masters of the virtual supply chain” instead of, in my words, “clueless”. I hope that, by the time I receive my LLB or JD in 2015, I’ll be among the former.

    Photo credit: Reportergimmi

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