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Iron Tech Lawyer Competition – Report

by Carolyn Elefant on April 18, 2013 · 9 comments

in Future Trends, Tech & Web

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I left the office on Wednesday afternoon to attend the Iron Tech Lawyer competition at Georgetown Law School.  I must confess that after six months of white noise about disruption, rethinking and access to justice as a way to access venture capital, I didn’t have high hopes for the students’ projects, which employ NeotaLogic (a smart-rules based platform that doesn’t require programming expertise) to automate some of the tasks carried out by pro bono organizations.

So to my very pleasant surprise, I was completely and utterly blown away by the sophistication of the tools developed by the Iron Tech Lawyer participants as well as the depth and quality of analysis that went into each system’s creations.  Most of the tools – which ranged from a test for minimum wage violations, an evaluation of eligibility for food stamps and (the winner) a test for bankruptcy eligibility – required students to master complex regulatory codes, break them down in digestible rules and map decision trees with hundreds of steps and contingencies. 

This work isn’t sexy and it’s rather modest in scope — in contrast to the hyperbolic change-the-world proclamations of many legal tech start-ups. But it’s important and sound and a world apart from the type of  beta garbage that’s coming out in full force now that Lean Start Up  has been popularized (as an aside, Lean means minimum VIABLE product – not minimum virtually-a-product). So what does this all mean for solos, law schools and the legal profession? My observations, after the jump:

One reason that I’ve been suspect of some types of technology is that up until now, the tools available have oversimplified and dumbed down the thinking part of being a lawyer. With LEXIS and Westlaw freely available in law school, most lawyers simply punch buttons when it comes to legal research instead of coming up with an efficient research strategy or consulting treatises or other secondary sources before diving right in. Most legal forms and templates – even those created by bar associations – have been simplified to the point of dangerous inaccuracy – yet many lawyers routinely rely on them in practice. 

NeotaLogic and the smart tools that I viewed today are a world apart from these earlier iterations.  The program collects input from users through simple, straightforward questions and then crunches the information to determine whether a person is eligible to file for bankruptcy or has a claim for wage violations or a case for Title 9 violations.  Along the way, the program educates users (be they pro se’s or new lawyers learning their way) by providing written reports explaining the findings or recommendations on alternative paths (for example, a person who doesn’t qualify for bankruptcy may be directed to a credit counseling program).

Because of their sophistication, these tools don’t eliminate lawyers at all. Instead they either expand the scope of potential clients or supplement and help lawyers refine the services that we already provide. For example, a non-lawyer could easily run through an intake sheet with prospective clients and present the results to a lawyer who could weed out the undesirable case and focus on those with more merit. And since the results are accompanied by a report, a lawyer can review the underlying basis for the analysis – and may decide to take a case anyway or pursue a different approach.

Of course, lawyers can also use these tools themselves to interview clients. There’s a value to sitting down with a client and asking questions – and often, experienced lawyers can identify other problems merely through a client’s demeanor or by asking certain follow up questions. With the Neota platform, lawyers can still go off on these tangents, but at the same time, ensure that they gather the minimum information to determine if a case is viable. Eventually, the program could even be modified to allow lawyers to go back in and add tangential questions that arise with greater frequency.

The students had modest aspirations for these tools. Most expected that they would be used in a pro bono context. When I mentioned to one or two students that big box law firms would pay big bucks to use these tools as lead generators, they were genuinely horrified.  Moreover, with the exception of one student group (that referred to lawyers as “Joe Shmo’s), most of the groups viewed the tool not as superior to lawyers or a replacement but rather as a way to educate clients about potential cases and their legal rights – and also to enable them to put information together in way that would assist a lawyer if they eventually decided to retain one.

Developing these types of expert systems is also a great learning experience – kind of a Socratic method on steroids, only self-taught. If you recall the Socratic method, a professor typically uses a student to explore all of the possibilities of a fact pattern (Did the railroad know the package had explosives? What if it did – would the result be the same? What if it had gotten a series of warnings, etc…) In order to create these programs, students have to consider all of these possibilities themselves. There’s no way to learn a law or regulation better than to climb inside it and spend four straight months with it – and that’s what this project forced students to do.  It’s ironic that programming a machine teaches students to think like lawyers -but it does. And it’s that ability to consider every aspect of a case, break it down and quickly make decisions that builds the kind of judgment that sets lawyers apart from form fillers and will save us from extinction.

What was most interesting – and unexpected – was that the male/female ratio of participants was roughly equal – even though both the technology industry and the upper echelons of law practice are dominated by men. Yet somehow, there’s equality at the intersection.

Of course, that shouldn’t come as a surprise if you read Susskind’s  Future of Lawyers till the bitter end (p. 282). There, Susskind predicts that the women will have the advantage in a tech driven world. He writes:

 If the twin forces of commoditization and IT do indeed combine to create a legal environment in which legal work is standardized and computerized, then we can well imagine that those individuals who are in the future responsible for innovating, designing, marketing and selling multi-sourced legal service will not be traditional left brain males but far more creative, innovative, artistic and often female lawyers.

So the demographic of IronTechLawyer suggests that Susskind is right again (does he ever get it wrong?!)

One aspect of the legal future movement that has long troubled me as I age is the disregard and disrespect for the wisdom and expertise of older lawyers. Most lawyers of my generation and beyond are viewed as elitists trying to protect their turf.  But it’s precisely these experienced lawyers and their vast wealth of experience who can be tapped to create these programs – to share the little twists and turns and practical aspects of cases that aren’t always apparent from black letter law but can still be accounted for in an expert system. These knowledge driven platforms are a win-win for all in our profession because they capture the wisdom of an earlier generation of lawyers for the benefit of newer lawyers and the public at large – as lawyers have always done.

  • GULC

    The “Joe Schmo” comment does not represent the beliefs of any group members other than the speaker, and was a surprise to others in the group. Rather than cutting into lawyers’ service, the apps seek to expand the population to whom these remedies are available by breaking down monetary barriers.

  • http://www.facebook.com/carolyn.elefant Carolyn Elefant

    Hi – I apologize for mentioning that point at all. I was really, really impressed by everyone’s hard work and I did not intend for an offhand criticism to detract from my overall view. As a solo, I am always sensitive to remarks about competence – but those comments come from other lawyers, not students and I should not have been so quick to rush to judgment. I think that I was judgmental because all of the students were so poised and articulate that I forgot they are just law students – and held them to higher standards that even grown lawyers couldn’t meet. I will remove that from the post because again, I do not want to detract from the hard and excellent work by every single participant.

  • myshingle

    I realize that – it was very clear that was the case – and I should have realized that the other comment was just made off hand. I hope that my post makes clear that I was really, really impressed with all of the work as well as the ability of participants to create usable technology that helps rather than replaces lawyers. I didn’t mean to be negative about that particular comment – and the only reason it stuck with me is due to my own sensitivity about solos rather than the comment itself.

  • meddywhite

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  • Guest

    “One aspect of the legal future movement that has long troubled me as I age is the disregard and disrespect for the wisdom and expertise of older lawyers. Most lawyers of my generation and beyond are viewed as elitists trying to protect their turf.”

    The disregard and disrespect you perceive most likely stems from the, now very well publicized, true nature of the profession as a “tournament guild,” which concept is discussed here: http://insidethelawschoolscam.blogspot.com/2012/12/tournament-guild.html

    New lawyers who are making a go of it are perhaps learning that it may just be necessary to pull the rug from under the masters to create new models, technological and otherwise, for the profession. It is not likely that those with expertise want to share wisdom with what threatens them. And otherwise, it’s not like the twists and turns of cases cannot be learned anew. Besides, this type of thing happens every few generations if not more frequently.

  • http://www.fssklaw.com/local-flavor/minneapolis-bankruptcy-lawyers.html FSSK Law

    This tool sounds like a helpful resource, and as always, the human brain and problem-solving capacities remain the best tool. Our intelligence and wisdom, as you mention at the end, will always go the farthest in creating unique solutions to our clients’ problems. Hats off to these students for their hard work.

  • Edward Still

    I looked at the Neota website (neotalogic.com). It appears to me that Neota is not really for solos and small firms. The company says, ”

    We work with law firms to build applications that companies can deploy on their intranets or embed in compliance, HR, trading and other systems.” If I am trying to sell my services to those wronged by those companies, it appears I don’t have a platform through Neota.

  • GULC

    No need to apologize, I just wanted to clarify as well. Thank you for the positive write-up of the event!

  • Edward Still

    Oh, yeah, this is definitely not priced for solos and small firms. “The pricing model is interesting. You supply the legal expertise (either
    from your law firm or from your in-house subject matter experts), and
    Neota Logic will provide you with process expertise (at an hourly rate)
    to turn that legal knowledge into a process questionnaire, which is
    hosted on Neota Logic servers. If you want to train some internal
    resources for application development, Neota Logic recommends five
    training sessions of three hours each, spread over several weeks, during
    which time the internal resources experiment with the application.
    There is also a minimum running cost of $5,000 per month for hosting and
    the use of the application, which covers up to 500 sessions a month (or
    $10 for each usage), with no separate charge for hosting. Above 500
    sessions a month, there is a sliding scale based on volume of use, with
    50,000 sessions a month costing less than two dollars a session.” Christian Liipfert and Ted Banks,Neota Logic Automates Legal Questions and Answers, http://bit.ly/ZZETuh (Law.com).

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