5 Questions on Automation

It is easy to confuse artificial intelligence with automation, or use the two interchangeably when talking about technological change “automating” people out of a job. Google says automation is, “The use of largely automatic equipment in a system of manufacturing or other production process.” Think of a car assembly line done first by humans, and now by machines. The machines repeat the same process, all day every day. There is no learning, the machine does not figure out how to get better or faster, it just does what it does best, screwing the same nuts and bolts into the same slot on every frame that hits its station.

What do you do, day in and day out, that does not require learning? What parts of being a lawyer remain so static and steadfast that a machine, or something like it, could do it? We asked the LTRC Board, and other lawyers and legal professionals, five questions about automation and lawyers. Their answers generally favor automation, but the nuances with which they currently use automation—and where they see it lacking—vary. Watch for more roundtables on legal technology issues, and feel free to offer your own suggestion for a future topic in the comments section.

Our panelists

Britt Lorish (BL) from Affinity Consulting Group; Andrew Legrand (AL),  founding partner at Spera Law Group, LLCM; Dan Pinnington (DP) from LawPRODennis Kennedy (DK), an information technology lawyer and legal technology author; and Tom Mighell (TM), senior consultant specializing in records management, ediscovery, and litigation readiness for Contoural.

What does automation mean to you?

BL: I think of automation as making a process more efficient with the use of technology.

AL: To me, automation means programing a computer to replace humans and complete low-level tasks that occur in a consistent pattern to increase the efficiency of my law practice. My goal in automating is to eliminate errors by removing humans from the actual task. Basically, if the task can be done consistently and predictably each and every time, can save me time or money, and makes me look better to my clients, it should be automated.

DP: Using stand-alone software, addons or functionality built into programs to have the computer do work much more quickly and accurately than you could ever do it (e.g., create a standard document from a template, insert specific text in a document or email).

DK: Automation means, well, automation. I see automation as a form of delegation—moving tasks best done by computers to computers and away from humans through smart implementation of rules, routines and procedures. The best automation frees you up to do higher-level work and thinking.

TM: In the context of law practice, automation is the act of using a technology to reduce the amount of work that would ordinarily be a manual effort. There are so many things that lawyers do, often repeatedly, that can take a lot of time—time that may not always be billable back to the client. As more and more legal activities become automated, clients become less willing to pay for lawyer effort to do it the old-fashioned way.

What area of your practice, or of the law, has benefited the most (or could benefit) from automation?

BL: Document automation is certainly something that has made many areas of practice easier, particularly for areas of practice like insurance defense litigation or estates and trust work. The law involves many standard pleadings, letters, contracts, etc., and document automation products such as HotDocs can reduce the time it takes to generate these significantly, but still have conditional logic that prevent the documents from being too cookie cutter. Further, by using the “enter the information once” mentality, much of the information can be pulled from a database such as a practice management system.

AL: Lawyers live in a world of text and words, and I’ve found that plenty of that can be automated. Contracts, court filings, communications with clients, and billing all involve putting words on to paper. Plenty of those words repeat time and time again, I’ve used a program called TextExpander (for Mac; Breevy is the PC equivalent) to create short snippets of text that automatically turn into words, phrases, and even multi-paragraph email communications. Commonly used examples include contact information such as email, address, and phone and fax numbers; Bluebook compliant citations; commonly used phrases like “Phone Call With,” “Motion for Summary Judgment,” and “independent contractor.”

Not only do the snippets save me time, but I know that if I type in the snippet for my fax number, my fax number will appear correct each and every time.

DP: Just about every area of practice could benefit—if you or your staff are doing the same task several or more times in a day or a week, you could reap the benefits of automation.

DK: While it is tempting to look at “Big Automation” like document assembly, it’s really small automation where I find the most useful benefits. Small automation focuses on reduction or elimination of high volume repetitive tasks. Email rules, automatic renumbering of sections in documents, and even spellcheckers are great examples of beneficial automation that help us on a daily basis. The automation might be small, but the long-term benefit can be big.

TM: Any area of law practice that requires a repeated process may benefit from automation. Document assembly has been one of the most popular and successful examples of automation—it saves lawyers time and aggravation by being able to produce a professionally-formatted document with a minimum of effort on the lawyer’s part. Lawyers who don’t use document assembly often find themselves reusing other client documents, and having to format (or re-format) the document to meet their needs. There’s also the problem of potentially leaving other client information from the previous document in your new document. Document assembly helps to avoid all of these problems.

Where in your practice, or in the legal profession, is automation being underutilized?

BL: So many places…  I think speech recognition is certainly one area, but I also believe even products like practice management software are sometimes still incredibly underutilized. If a firm has it in use at all, they are often only using the basic features of it, rather than taking full advantage of all of the time saving automation it can potentially provide.

AL: Automation starts at the basic text expansion explained above, and is only limited in complication by software and the skill of the person creating the automation. Text automation is the most underutilized in the legal profession because it’s the most basic form of automation, every lawyer uses text, and therefore would benefit every lawyer. But every lawyer isn’t using text automation.

DP: The lawyers that understand the power of automation are already automating their practices, unfortunately they are in the minority

DK: Across the whole profession, document assembly is extremely underutilized. However, even the small automation examples I mentioned earlier—email rules and renumbering—have a low rate of adoption.

TM: See above re: document assembly. But I also think there are a lot of simple tasks that can be automated, and lawyers aren’t taking advantage of them as much as they should. See my answer to the next question.

What practical automation applications should lawyers be watching out for?

BL: I think that more and more lawyers are embracing the power of voice automation. With the increased usage of Siri and the like, lawyers are starting to see the power behind automating things with their voice. Products like Dragon NaturallySpeaking not only transcribe your dictation, but can actually control you whole your computer by voice and custom commands are like voice macros that automate many standard tasks. It is also fully cloud capable now, and mobility is obviously a key trend. This is one of many areas where we are seeing increased acceptance and rapid development.

AL: Any lawyer should start with text and document automation, and look for programs that do that well. Where TextExander or Breevy help with short snippets of text, TheFormTool helps create entire complex documents, or a set of documents, from given information. For example, a business lawyer could create all the documents necessary to form an LLC in minutes, or an estate planning attorney can create a power of attorney, trust, living will, and last will, all based off of basic information provided by the client. Litigators could prepare forms that generate pleadings, discovery, and similar documents. Work that used to be done by an associate, paralegal, or secretary, can now largely be done by document automation.

DP: Start with basics—use the tools that are already on your desktop (e.g., Quick Parts or templates in MS Word, MS Outlook, and other MS Office applications). Crank it up a notch with Word addon programs like TheFormTool or Pathagoras which let you easily build automated documents. The sky is the limit with more powerful tools like HotDocs and if you learn to code Visual Basic.

DK: Most of them are already here and built into the tools we use everyday, like Microsoft Office. Document assembly certainly deserves a fresh look. I’m especially intrigued by IFTTT (If This Then That), a web service that offers “recipes” to automate many common tasks you do on the web. The automation tools available for free in Windows and Mac OSX would also surprise many people.

TM: Lawyers should be paying attention to simple but powerful automation tools found in unusual places. Tools like IFTTT (If This, Then That) and Zapier are online services that connect different web tools and makes them work together. For example, you can tell these tools to take attachments from your Gmail and store them in a Dropbox folder, or automatically create notes from web pages and save them in Evernote. These represent really simple but increasingly powerful ways to get things done with a lot less manual effort.

Should lawyers be afraid of or encouraged by automation?

BL: Definitely encouraged. Most automation gives significant return on investment if deployed correctly. The firm will have increased productivity and efficiency, which in turn can translate to better quality of life.

AL: Lawyers should be encouraged by automation because it allows them to reduce the time they spend on (or the cost of paying someone else to do) mundane client and administrative matters and allows them to focus on the complex issues they’re actually being paid to solve. By reducing the number of low-level tasks through automation, lawyers have more time to find clients, work, or simply relax. And while some may argue that computers and automation may be eliminating jobs for lawyers, consider this: we’re still years away from a computer that can process and organize facts, researching the law, and apply the law to those facts.

DP: Automation should be an essential part of every lawyer’s survival toolkit. Automating the repetitive work in your office will allow you to get things done better, faster and cheaper, and in turn you will be able to more effectively compete with other lawyers and even the online legal service providers.

DK: Lawyers should be cheering automation on and setting aside some time to learn to do automation better than they are now. There’s work that belongs to lawyers and tasks that can be automated. Lawyers who understand that difference and how to do something about it are going to be happier and more productive than those who don’t. Make your computers work for you and don’t do their work for them!

TM: Lawyers should never be afraid of any technology advances, in my opinion. They should educate themselves on the risks and benefits of using technology, including automation tools, and make an informed decision about whether these tools make sense for their practice. But lawyers who have a lot of manual processes in their practice should definitely be encouraged by the help that automation can bring to their workday.

About Gwynne Monahan

Gwynne Monahan

Best known by her Twitter handle, @econwriter5. Generally speaking, she is a writer posting random, perhaps interesting, things.

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  • Dina Lynch Eisenberg

    Great panel discussion, Gwynne. Automation and outsourcing are the fastest, easiest ways for lawyers to lift the burden off their shoulders so they can focus on the high level thinking and advice their clients want and deserve. One simple yet very effective place to use Zapier is capturing and responding to the leads from your contact page on your website. I talk about those kinds of automation hacks at http://MyWealthyPractice.com

  • Darren Starr

    My niece told me of her ambitions of studying law in 5 years when she starts at the university. I explained that already law is a somewhat saturated market of “dog eat dog” and that already massive components of the paralegal profession has been replaced by software. Tools like legal search engines have all but replaced legal secretaries. As with the interview above, concerns were raised about software chewing into billable hours related to document production allowing an established lawyer to create documents that are less cookie cutter than simply filling in a template. Even now, Intuit is making a point of providing a great deal of “self service” tools to allow users to reduce their dependence on humans for their legal needs.

    Do you believe that in the coming 10 years the market will have adapted to the change to allow established lawyers to continue operations and feed the appropriate amount of new lawyers into the market that new lawyers will be able to sell billable hours without hurting the established system? Would you recommend to a young lady that hopes to study law with altruistic intents that she would be able to justify what will likely accumulate into $150,000 of debt? I don’t believe she currently has the eat or be eaten mentality to compete against the truly ambitious.

    She has also expressed interest in being an OBGYN which I explained is also likely to take a hit because midwifers equipped with technology will decrease the demand for specialists as it has in Europe.

    It’s hard times for many classic professions and there is much uncertainty. I am actively part of projects to reduce human dependence for many tasks by automating. I focus on the IT sector where a single program can easily reduce the job market by 10,000 heads. In fact, Cisco is investing billions and betting their entire future on elimination all but the top tier of network engineers.

    P.S. I loved the comment regarding learning VB script as a practical approach to law. I hadn’t even considered tech savvy lawyers capable of scripting their own document solutions. This seems logical and I see this as a major job killer for IT and I love it!

    P.P.S. I am so excited about the future where many of the classic jobs will dissolve into history as did type setters shifting around tiles in a frame did. I believe we have so many things in this world which need to be done to make this world better and am glad that professions like IT and law which currently use thousands of people to do what 10 people should be able to do are being automated. We will be creative and we will find so many new and better ways of living and we’ll have the manpower to evolve into something better.

  • Michael McCarroll

    As an immigration lawyer, I was not happy with the options to streamline my cases that are available to the public for purchase. I spent hours printing, scanning and organizing visa petitions and immigrant applications, which are basically several PDF forms, a ton of supporting documents and a cover page. I decided to make my own automated paralegal, who I call LYNDA, to help me do this. I have learned that with code, and especially if you are willing to go it yourself and hire some computer programmers, you can accomplish almost anything, although it can be very time consuming, so you really have to weight the benefit vs the cost of developing your own system. However, realizing that you can get a computer to do almost anything, as long as you have the time to develop the logic behind it and the repetition, is cool. I think that the lawyers that do not embrace technology will ultimately fail in the not so distant future. Lawyers with a lot of capital to fund these types of projects will have a distinct advantage in the marketplace. If you want to see LYNDA in action, check out the video on my homepage at http://www.DenverImmigrationDefense.com.

    Michael McCarroll