The Rise of the Programmers

I have this dream—a nightmare really—like one of those dreams where you’re trapped in an embarrassing or compromising position. In this dream, I walk into my law firm’s library and the shelves and books are gone. Instead, I see rows of keyboards and gleaming cathode ray tubes. The computers have staged a coup d’état.

Scott Stolley, The Corruption of Legal Research, For the Defense (Apr. 2004).

The promise and scope of Big Data is that within all that data lies the answer to just about everything.

Vivek Ranadivé, Chairman and CEO, Tibco, from Crunching Big Data: more than a byte-sized bet (June 9, 2011).

The recent announcement by Wolters Kluwer of its latest iteration of Loislaw—billed as LoislawConnect—highlighted some new functionality that made me pause. The press release noted that LoislawConnect offers to the consumer:

Enhanced search functionality – New federated searching gives you a comprehensive list of documents from all LoislawConnect databases. Then, easily refine and filter results.

(Emphasis added.)

This sounded really familiar to me, and that got me thinking.

First, touting “federated search” in marketing pieces (and building it into systems, if that’s the right order) is the norm now since WestlawNext was released last year. But as a consumer, I’ve been using federated search systems for years. So the response to these announcements is “meh, it’s about time.”

Second, our expectations as a consumer are informing our professional life more and more; in fact, many now demand that hardware, services, and content (whether print or digital) meet the same standards. For example, the 2011 ILTA/InsideLegal Technology Purchasing Survey confirms that over half of the surveyed firms (from 50 to 3,000 attorneys) are now providing IT support for employees that purchase and use tablets, which are principally consumer-oriented devices. 

Third, in thinking about the future of data, Jeff Jonas’ has observed that you can’t just federate systems, you have to comingle the data so the data can, well, find other data. In other words, federation is merely a stage on the way to the future. In light of Jonas’ observations, I would suggest that CALR vendors are in the realm of Stage Three of the data maturity model.

Fourth, the convergence of all this data—in what some are now advocating should be conceptualized as a “data lake”—will supposedly increase discoverability and prediction, among many other supposedly wonderful things. In Data Finds Data, Jonas describes increased discoverability this way:

Next-generation ‘Smart’ information management systems will not rely on users dreaming up smart questions to ask computers; rather, they will automatically determine if new observations reveal something of sufficient interest to warrant some reaction, e.g., sending an automatic notification to a user or a system about an opportunity or risk. [¶] When the ‘data can find the data,’ there exists an opportunity for the insight to find the user. [¶] How data finds data is a statement about discoverability, the degree to which previous information can be located and correlated with the new data. Discoverability requires the ability to recall related historical data so that an arriving piece of data can find its place, similar to the way each jigsaw puzzle piece is assessed relative to a work-in-progress puzzle. Each new puzzle piece incrementally builds upon what is knowable, at each given point in time relative to the evolving puzzle picture. Often new pieces, although important to building out the bigger picture, do not themselves bring new critical information. (On the other hand, some pieces may change the shape of the puzzle in a way that warrants ringing the bell—finding that one piece that connects the palm tree scene to the alligator scene.) It is at this moment in time, when the new puzzle piece presents the opportunity to reshape the picture, that discoveries are made. Real-time discovery replaces the need for users to think up and pose the right question at just the right time.’

Finally, data isn’t just “data” anymore. It’s “big,” and by big is meant every source of information connected to the Internet or available digitally (yes, that includes social media and context-aware data, i.e., mobile). So to advance, we will be asked to let go of our traditional notions of legal data (e.g., cases, statutes, codes, rules, regulations, executive decisions, treatises) and embrace something much larger. Something much more unwieldy and largely unstructured. The law is, after all, a living, breathing thing.

And that’s when the programmers will take over. They will come in and say things like, “We can replace and support human decision-making with automated algorithms. Our analytics can improve your decision making, minimize any risks, and unearth valuable insights that would otherwise remain hidden to you.” And these words will make sense to us because our margins are squeezed, competition is fierce, and we need more push, not pull. But with each step we potentially move farther and farther away from discovering the law to receiving it. Then, at some point, we will no longer be learned intermediaries, but messengers, and the “the law as it is” will no longer be within our reach.

The counterargument here, of course, is that law doesn’t really lend itself to the “big data” issues being discussed by technologists and computer scientists. After all, our jobs (for at least 85% of us) are to find, consume, and apply primary law on behalf of our clients, and for the most part this stuff must be in silos, which is sometimes difficult to find when we don’t know which one. So the business of law doesn’t really need anything other than a search engine that allows us to look at it all, and some fancier algorithms that make the relevancy of those results slightly better. But that’s it. Besides, the business of law is like a giant ship, and it takes a long time to turn around. (So you programmers can just stay in your cubicles and dark offices and leave us alone.)

For me, my money’s on the programmers because right now it’s really the sales and marketing people driving that bus. If the recent reorganization of Thomson Reuters is any indication of who will be calling the shots on what the future of legal research and content management is going to look like (and by extension, the practice of law), the next decade is going to be a period of amazing (read: possibly depressing) change.

As always, I look forward to hearing your thoughts in the comments.


  1. The programmers will “win” in the sense that they will create the dominant paradigm for legal research, but what will the results be? And, will it change the law? Will the top two or three hits on WestlawNext be the applicable law, because the algorithm says it is? And if that’s the case, what will anyone need lawyers for?

    I think the best hope will be judges who want to make the right ruling, regardless of the research shortcomings of the attorneys practicing before them.

  2. Unlike Scott Stolley’s nightmare where “the computers have staged a coup d’état.” For one legal information provider who has done away with its in-house library it’s the bean bag chairs that are the culprits of the coup d’état. Rather than convert the space, where you would assume innovation would be emanating, namely, the Boardroom, to an innovation room with all the toys and props deemed conducive to innovation this particular office has chosen to be done with one of the tools of research. Good luck to them.