Computerizing Lawyers in Document Review

When Watson trumped several Jeopardy champions, Simon Chester wondered what the implications would be for lawyers. The New York Times appears to have answered that question, at least in part, in a story this weekend by John Markoff, Armies of Expensive Lawyers, Replaced by Cheaper Software.

Markoff points to the California litigation support companies Blackstone Discovery, who can analyze 1.5 million documents for under US$100,000, and Clearwell, who assisted DLA Piper meet a one-week court deadline by searching 570,000 court documents for specific concepts, rather than key words.

“From a legal staffing viewpoint, it means that a lot of people who used to be allocated to conduct document review are no longer able to be billed out,” said Bill Herr, who as a lawyer at a major chemical company used to muster auditoriums of lawyers to read documents for weeks on end. “People get bored, people get headaches. Computers don’t.”

Such automation will inevitably impact the legal profession, but it’s hardly a death blow. Somebody still needs to administer these document review systems, preferably someone with a legal background themselves.

It does mean there will be far fewer positions in law firms for this type of role, which presumably will translate into cost savings for clients. And if Lakehead University in Ontario and Thompson Rivers University in British Columbia proceed with two new law schools, it means that many more lawyers on the market.

The real question is, where will all those lawyers go instead? Many will invariably have to find positions in other areas of law. Client development and marketing roles will have greater importance.

They will also find legal jobs in positions that simply cannot be automated, including those in litigation where appearances in court are still required in person, something unlikely to change in the near future despite any advances in technology.

Young lawyers do need to pay attention to these trends to position themselves ahead of these trends, which will only accelerate in the decades to come, and plan accordingly.

Unfortunately law schools do not prepare for these challenges. They are still structured to encourage blind perseverance in light of mountains of work, and stifle creativity thinking and ingenuity. Perhaps the new law schools in Ontario and B.C. will take up these challenges.

Given the economic and social pressures faced by law students, the responsibility perhaps shifts to the legal industry. If law firms express a preference for leadership, creativity, and collaboration, law students will invariably comply. Yasar Saffie recently shared a recruitment video by Dutch law firm, Houthoff Buruma, demonstrating exactly these types of skills in a delivery format likely palatable by law students.

Watson should be a wake-up for a new direction in document review, and those responding to these challenges should be able to demonstrate their own ingenuity and vision to both clients and potential recruits.


  1. The more interesting question is what this software might do for legal research. The hardest things to find in on-line researching are concepts and expressions of attitudes and these are often the most important aspects of the law. Many of the dangers of (badly done) legal research are the result of inadequate word searches; inadequate because no words or combinations of words will produce the cases that are important.

  2. Even Paul Krugman in the NYT leaped in with a column wondering where this leaves North American lawyers and other highly educated personnel. Frankly I wonder why the discovery document review drones of US firms are held up as doing anything especially significant. Of course it’s a profit centre and the leverage is attractive, but the work is a consequence of trends in the FRCP, and the quantity of information. Not surprising that smart souls would try and automate.

    And Mother Jones wonders about Our Computer Overlords.

    Back before he became a futurist management consultant, Richard Susskind expanded his D. Phil thesis into a book called Expert Systems and the Law, in which he analyzed the logical structure of the rules in a single area, latent damage, where a statute, the Latent Damage Act had codified the rules. It was staggering how complex a single statute was to replicate in Code.

    We are a long way from having even a fraction of the creative and judgment-based work of lawyers captured in Code.

    Low hanging fruit isn’t the orchard.