The concept of modern lawyering encompasses plenty of scope for creativity, deep knowledge, leadership skills and other invaluable qualities people have traditionally been willing to pay for. Key considerations such as human judgment, personal interaction, and network benefits remain core features within the tradition and impervious to automation.
Although the threat of technology to fully replace lawyers and conscious legal judgment is unlikely, lawyers and the law must be challenged to critically assess the boundaries of just how much of a lawyer’s workflow can be streamlined and automated.
To find automation best practices, we review the worst practices. Here are three instances where the limits of automation are addressed and act as a succinct guide of what not to do for ethical legal automation.
Over-automation: operating like a factory, rather than a firm.
Over-automation can be classified as automating tasks to a degree of eliminating adequate scope for review, and ignoring the ethical legal duty of oversight. One firm over-automated their legal filings to the extent that they were “operating less like a law firm than a factory”.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) felt that Georgia law firm Frederick J. Hanna & Associates were acting unethically in their lack of meaningful attorney involvement when preparing and filing debt collection complaints. “In 2009 and 2010, the firm directed one attorney to sign about 85% of the Georgia Collection Suits—about 138,000 lawsuits. Over two years, this single attorney signed an average of about 1,300 collection suits a week.” Automated rubber stamp signatures on the filed paperwork equaled more than 350,000 collection suits between 2009 and 2013 – spending less than a minute reviewing and approving each suit. The CFPB filed a federal accusation against the firm, which was ultimately settled for $3.1 million dollars.
Excessive lawsuits: the rise of robo-suits.
A series of cases brought by Cohen & Slamowitz, a debt collection legal firm prove the potential for law firms to abuse the efficiencies of automation with the ability to file meritless claims at an excessive rate. This New York firm came under fire for the excessive nature of filing lawsuits by way of automated software: the firm filed 5,700 lawsuits per year, per attorney. With a staff of fourteen.
Due to the unmonitored filing process, the accuracy or validity upon which these claims were based was questionable. This trend towards automated suit filing is also resulting in a growing number of defense firms specializing specifically in pursuing these cases filings.
Robo-suits are also being matched by bot-lawyers: programs functioning on the ability to process large amounts of data, coordinate with publicly available laws and records, and execute simple tasks at a rapid pace. When used as tools to search databases and records, this automation streamlines time-consuming and necessary tasks. Yet, if a bot is used to advise subjectively on legal matters, this would cross the threshold for the unauthorized practice of law.
Examples of bot-lawyers gaining popularity include a robot lawyer with the ability to appeal parking tickets for individuals based on applying publically available information to their situation – with a UK-based bot successfully appealing $3 million worth of tickets since late 2015.
Unauthorized Practice of Law: protection from pretenders.
Courts reserve the right to look beyond the statutory definition and find the unauthorized practice of law (UPL) exists depending on the “context and the situation involved”, (Re Jayson Reynoso, Janson v. LegalZoom). When technical automations cross the threshold from assisting legal professionals in their work to conducting legal tasks, the issue of a UPL presents itself.
The key purpose of licensing lawyers for the practice of law is to protect the public against the rendition of legal services by unqualified persons, and so total deregulation of automated services would pose a threat to vendors attempting to replace experienced lawyers with poorer technical substitutes.
In re Jayson Reynoso and Janson v. LegalZoom, based on Missouri and California state laws respectively, the provisions of legal services were addressed and examined for whether or not they constituted a UPL. While the merits of the cases and specific services differed, the same test was used to assess this breach. First, the meaning of the practice of law was examined, then the way in which the services were presented to the public, and the functionality of the product was assessed. In re Jayson Reynoso, the court purposely abstained from commenting on whether or not specific types of programs would constitute UPL, creating the potential that automated systems are permissible under certain circumstances.
While workflow automation is essential for growth in a modern legal firm, the above detractors can damage credibility and hinder profit.
- Don’t lose sight of the purpose of your profession: to exercise a skilled degree of expertise and execute tasks based on your ability to think critically and practice law.
- To overlook these core requirements eliminate your purpose and flirt with the unauthorized practice of law.
- Automate ethically and enjoy the perks of a modernized law firm
Clio legal practice management features a multitude of integrations and abilities to assist in the ethical day-to-day automation of law firm tasks. Curious to know more? See our blog for advice on automations, or sign up for a free trial today.