Why a Robot Won't Replace Paralegals

That's a lot of data in those stacks of cardboard boxes.

If, at some point, a law firm aims to grind you or your company into fine, odorless dust, you'll know it by the word "discovery." This process of finding facts to use in the suit involves combing through perhaps hundreds of thousands of documents, and usually falls to legal associates and paralegals. It's a giant black hole for money and working hours, by design. But if computers get really good at discovery, would paralegals (and the power they represent at trial) become obsolete?

Paralegals aren't easy to replace. They may work on hundreds of different cases once, and after gathering pertinent material (which may or may not be exactly what they need) a laborious back and forth starts. Requests are sent to the opposing party and vice versa, the legal team suggests strategy to the client, and the process continues as files are prepared for depositions, court events, and the trial itself. 

The negotiations are likely to remain in human hands. But the hassle could be reduced using e-discovery technology, or software that amasses and analyzes mountains of legal data.

Companies like Blackstone Discovery, Clearwell, Autonomy, and Chenope all have consulting technology that basically tries to cut out the paralegal process, saving firms time and money. Some of them use a simple keyword search or more complex phraseology recognition to collate the potentially thousands of individual documents for hundreds of cases all at once. Software appeals to lawyers and their firms because humans human get tired or lazy, or they overlook details that could determine a case.

Yet paralegals are hanging in there. As MIT economics professor David H. Autor spoke told the New York Times about this tech in 2011 “There is no reason to think that technology creates unemployment. Over the long run we find things for people to do.”

I found a paralegal who has more than two decades of experience on the job and deals primarily with personal injury and professional liability claims. He told me technology like Blackstone Discovery isn’t a death knell. Instead he sees it as an essential part of the modern paralegal and legal associate process.

“We have a similar proprietary program where thousands of documents can be entered and assessed for their content and import,” he explained. “We can retrieve categories of documents that are germane to a task with simple phrases or keywords.” At his firm, that program is reserved for huge cases with already voluminous sets of documents, leaving the simpler cases to the traditional process.

He’s also a part of a paperless team at the firm that relies on new technology to manage their business. “The goal of our group,” he said, “is to take a case from beginning to end electronically,” filing all documents of his cases to the courts online.

Autor's statement to the Times in this case might need a slight tweak: The people who find things to do with computers are the ones who survive in the long run. Software has the advantage in speed and memory, but interpreting data and honing arguments is still a human endeavor. The irreplaceable paralegal is the one who figures out how to keep the computers working on his side.

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