A recent New York Times article describes advances that allow computers do much of the work lawyers do in complex litigation where there are millions of documents and emails that need to be reviewed before trial. But computers can also help simplify everyday legal matters such as wills, divorces, and bankruptcies.
Information gathering is good example of a task that computers do well. In corporate litigation, sophisticated software applications relieve lawyers of having to spend many tedious hours sifting through e-mails. Similarly, legal software for consumers can flawlessly execute a checklist of questions designed to gather the right information and then complete forms that many people would have made mistakes on their own.
In both cases software allows lawyers to focus on what they do best: legal analysis and strategic planning. In the corporate scenario, more of the client’s money goes toward these higher-end functions because the computer gathers information not junior associates who bill hundreds of dollars an hour. In the consumer scenario, software can enable a person to draft their own document rather than paying a lawyer or paralegal to do the same task. The resulting savings can then be put toward hiring a lawyer to review their document. It is worth noting that because many people cannot hire a lawyer at all, the alternative to software-assisted legal drafting is having no assistance at all.
In the 1999 case Unauthorized Practice of Law Committee v. Parsons Technology, a federal court held that Quicken Family Lawyer software was acting as a “cyber-lawyer” and therefore violated the state’s Unauthorized Practice of Law statute. The Texas legislature quickly passed a bill amending the statute. We hope that, as legal software becomes more sophisticated, the legal profession will continue to recognize the valuable role computers can play in increasing consumers’ access to justice.