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Some Thoughts on Legal Technology and the Amish

For my vacation this summer I traveled to Amish country in Ohio where we were given a tour of an Amish furniture manufacturing business and welcomed into an Amish home for a meal. It was a thought provoking and humbling experience to see a community that has so successfully and for so long decided how it wants to live and refused to accept the idea that the way the rest of society lives is inevitable. It made me think about the ways the legal community approaches technology and how technological change can be handled.

I had never had exposure to Amish culture before and didn’t have much background in how they choose what technology to adopt, but what I learned is that they select what to use or refuse to use based on how they perceive its impact on their community. This means that while they mainly don’t connect to the electrical grid, many have generators for various purposes and may wire new homes they build without connecting them in case there is a buyer who isn’t Amish when they want to sell the house later.

The furniture making business we visited uses power tools, but they are all retrofitted to run on compressed air power. The compressed air was run throughout the workshop using pneumatic tubing, and it was created using a natural gas tank attached to a generator, which was used to power an air compressor. This led to certain idiosyncratic benefits over standard electrical workshop infrastructure: we watched with great amusement as they used the compressed air to blow saw dust off their clothes before going in for lunch.

They have also decided, and I understand make ongoing decisions after regular consideration, that they will not drive automobiles. What I was told is that they believe cars would be detrimental to their communities, and, living as I do quite far from most of my family contrasted with the apparent closeness of the family we visited, I am inclined to agree that they do encourage increased distance from loved ones.

The reason I am writing about this, is that I see parallels between the legal community’s approach to technological change and other groups who have wanted to control the rate of change such as the Amish and the Luddites, and believe the legal community can take some insight from them. The Amish choose to control, and the Luddites sought to control, the rate and type of technological change they would adopt as a way to create and preserve the kinds of communities they want to live in. The Luddites didn’t want to make lower wages, produce lower quality products, or work for someone else in a factory instead of for themselves in their their homes, because they felt it reduced their quality of life. The Amish don’t choose to drive cars, because they believe it would lessen their separation from the larger society and weaken their communities.

I have spoken with many in the legal community who feel concern about the prospect of applying certain technological advances to legal practice: this can encompass emerging innovations, such as semantic analysis of legal materials and algorithm powered software for giving legal advice, and the adoption of technology in wide use, like new versions of office software. From my observations, the sources of concern are generally different: suspicion of losing control over insight in how decisions are made in the former and an unwillingness to interrupt a preferred workflow in the latter, but to some degree they both stem from a lack of comfort with and understanding of how computers work and can be used to do things better.

The Amish in contrast are successful in controlling technology in their lives because they are extraordinarily knowledgeable about the tools they use. The conversion to compressed air power for workshops is done by members of the local Amish community: it would be much easier to simply walk into a hardware store and buy tools and plug them in. If the legal community wants to refuse to work with the tools that are standard in the larger community, it will require more effort and deeper understanding to maintain that difference.

This might be possible to maintain if there is a real desire to do so, as it seems that lawyers as a community have the potential to decide to a great degree what kinds of practice they want to have, this is especially true of lawyers in private practice who can choose how their offices are run and who, in many cases, have an ownership stake in the organizations where they work. This means that as long as they can show value to clients and conform to certain requirements imposed by external authorities like courts and law societies, they can run their businesses how they choose.

The Amish have been very successful in this regard, as the quality of their work is generally perceived to be excellent, and the fact that something is made by Amish people has become a selling point and raises the prices customers are willing to pay. This can be compared to the Luddite movement where part of the tension involved in the resistance to technological change derived from perceptions that the quality of goods being produced was below acceptable standards and was decreasing the reputations of their industries. The Luddites were not agitating to preserve their right to knit stockings on four needles – they were fighting for things like the ability to control the quality of goods being produced and to be paid fair wages.

This corresponds to the main concerns I have heard from lawyers in integrating new technologies into their practices: uncertainty about the quality of results and diminished income. Ironically, consideration of the Amish and technology in the context of the legal industry would call for considerably more effort on the part of the legal profession to understand the capabilities of available tools and decide how they should best be used, but it also gives a good way to consider how to decide what to adopt. Where a technology gives them something they want and that improves their communities they use it: many Amish buggies have hydraulic shocks, which I understand makes them considerably more comfortable. Now all that’s needed is to work out what technologies can absorb the shocks of the practice of law and figure out how they should be adopted.

For a brief discussion of the Amish and their approach to technology see here.

For a brief discussion of the Luddites and what they were fighting for see here.

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