Iron Tech Lawyer Competition – Report

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.