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Lawyering in an Age of Smart Machines

Should law students know computer programming?  Yes, says Suffolk Law Professor Marc Lauritsen, if they want to thrive in the new legal landscape.

Marc Lauritsen is a lawyer with a mission.  By the end of a decade, he wants every law school to offer at least one clinical course on electronic lawyering. He sees it as a matter of survival.

Lawyers are losing bread-and-butter work to a rapid proliferation of companies like LegalZoom and RocketLawyer that offer low-priced, online legal assistance, especially for pro se creation of wills, divorce petitions, real estate transactions, and other documents.

“The question is: Do you sue these companies and try to get them out of business? Or do you figure out how to leverage the technology?” says Lauritsen, who has been deeply involved with the issue since 1989 and owns a legal technology company called Capstone Practice Systems. He clearly sides with leverage.

He can count on two hands law schools that have recently offered the kind of hands-on, skill-focused course he has in mind:  IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, Brigham Young Unversity, Columbia, Georgetown, New York Law School, and Suffolk Law.

There are other schools with legal technology courses, but they lack the programming component Lauritsen thinks is vital.

“You have to understand not only what the software does, but how it works; what a machine can and cannot do,” says Lauritsen.  And the best way to learn that is by doing it. “It’s easier for a lawyer to learn a little about programming than for a programmer to learn a little about law,” he told his students in Suffolk’s “Lawyering in an Age of Smart Machines” course last fall.

That’s why every student had to write a legal computer application. They used Access to Justice (A2J) Author, a software developed at Chicago-Kent, and HotDocs Developer. The results were user-friendly programs, complete with avatars and graphics, that employed an interview approach to produce documents including an affidavit of indigency, an application for food stamps, a copyright form, a demand letter for housing repair, and a screening form for possible workplace discrimination.

Legal aid services in more than 30 states are using similar applications, some developed at Chicago-Kent. In fact, the courses at Chicago-Kent and Suffolk Law are part of a national plan to tap the power of law students to produce hundreds or even thousands of programs that can be used to help meet the legal needs of people who can’t afford lawyers.

Lauritsen, who has two degrees from MIT and a JD from Harvard, hopes these type of classes catch on the way clinics did. “In the late 1960s, when it was suggested that practice be part of law school curriculum, there was resistance. But now almost every law school has practice clinics.”

With a technology clinic, students would not only assist low-income people, even if they never meet them. They would also be getting a handle on the future of their profession, Lauritsen says. “For law schools not to be actively involved is scandalous.”

He acknowledges the resistance to allowing smart programs to handle some lawyering chores. “Many lawyers imagine their work is much more idiosyncratic and creative than it is. When I sit down with them, they may say, ‘Jane, down the hall, can really use this, but my work is far too unique.’ Then I look at the documents on their desk and point out how a program could help.”

Lauritsen and his fellow legal technology missionaries hope the kind of courses they have in mind will “start to steamroll.”  And they just may.

This winter, the Center for Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction (CALI) announced that six law schools, including Columbia, Georgetown, and University of North Carolina, are participating in the Access to Justice Clinical Course Project, developing course models that use the A2J Author.

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