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Message from the Guest Editor

New Tricks for an Old Dog: Teaching Legal Tech By Ron Dolin, J.D., Ph.D.

I was fortunate last term to teach a new course at Stanford Law School that I called Legal Technology and Informatics.1 Legal informatics could be defined as a computational perspective of law: where legal information resides, and how it is manipulated and transmitted. In putting the course together, I had to select from a wide array of potential material that I thought was important to train a new generation of lawyers and “legal technologists”. In this article, I will discuss some of what I included and why. In addition, as the guest editor of this issue of The Bottom Line (TBL), I invited some of the people whom I thought were working in areas of interest to practitioners. My goal is to inform lawyers about some of the changes coming as a result of legal technology, as well as to help prepare them not only to utilize new methods, but also to help build them.

Although there is a decades-old history to the application of technology to the law (e.g. the conferences ICAIL, JURIX, TREC), in many important ways legal technology and informatics is transforming into something new. It is not surprising that technology would invade and transform any field at some point. Law, though, is often a bastion of tradition and risk aversion (often for good reason), so it is also not surprising that law has not generally been among the early adopters of the “new new thing”.2 This is perhaps especially true under the pyramid-based, billable hour model of many law firms, where the incentives to capitalize on technological improvements in efficiency and accuracy are often absent.3 Nevertheless, it seems that the law is currently undergoing a transformation, in no small part due to technology, that is disrupting the status quo.4 As a result, TBL felt that it was important to highlight some of the changes afoot in the profession so that practitioners can better anticipate, accommodate, and even accelerate a new paradigm of law and legal practice. Throughout this article, I'll be introducing the other articles in this issue as they relate to some of the material I'm describing. In this case, the article by Marc Lauritsen, “A Time to Tool Up,” focuses on the growing importance to attorneys of a hands-on awareness of upcoming tools, while the article by lawyer and venture capitalist David Hornik, “Bringing Technology to the Law,” focuses on some of the areas most likely to experience these changes.

The class was composed of nine sessions in the quarter, each with a main theme and a guest speaker (some of whom have been included in this issue). As I describe the material below, I highlight the major points that I hoped to present to the class. Legal technology cuts across all areas of law and technology, and the class was designed as a survey – touching on broad topics with pointers in both the syllabus and course reader for the interested student. For anyone interested, the full syllabus is availableat The thrust of the class was to help law students understand how to look at legal problems from a computational and engineering perspective, as well as to understand the context under which technology is more likely to be adopted within the legal system. For another perspective on teaching law and technology, the article by Ronald Staudt and Andrew Medeiros, regarding their “A2J” Access-2-Justice program at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, focuses on practical, hands-on technology training.

The course had no formal engineering prerequisites. Although some students had engineering degrees, the bulk of them were not likely to become code-generating engineers. They were much more likely, though, to be early adopters, or promote incorporation, of new systems, to work with engineers in developing new systems, etc. The more they are able to see the computational perspective of legal problems, the better they will be at transforming current manual practices into (semi-) automated systems. And beyond that, it will help them generalize current practice into completely new ways of interacting with the law – to “think outside the bar”. Student grades were mainly a result of papers about topics of their choosing, and the areas they chose included ODR, M&A automation, online methods of solving legal problems, patent visualization, and much more. In the end, the students were required to update Wikipedia with a summary of their papers in order to help propagate a broader knowledge base of the field, to get them used to contributing, and to get them using common online tools. The students ended up rating the class very highly – an indication that they were quite interested in learning about the field.

1. Transformations

The main point of the first class session was to describe the ways in which the legal profession, and “big law” in particular, is changing, and why, including the role of technology in this transformation. That is, what were these students likely to see over the course of their careers? Certainly, as has been discussed at length elsewhere,5 factors such as outsourcing, flat fees, and changing law firm business structures are having a large effect on legal practice. But the impact of technology on the field is still in its infancy. The guest speaker for this class was Don Jaycox, the CIO (for the Americas) of DLA Piper. As Don told the class, there will soon be two kinds of lawyers – those that understand technology and those that don't. It is clear which ones he thought were more likely to have a successful career. I explained the ways that a law firm might be viewed from an informatics perspective – a set of legal functions with data inputs and outputs, some of which were amenable to cloud-based componentization, automation, etc. Among some of the readings for this class, I asked that everyone read at least the introduction to Richard Susskind's “The End of Lawyers?” (the newer introduction to the 2010 paperback edition). As Susskind points out in his book, many people miss the “?” in the title. He is not suggesting that lawyers will go away any time soon, but raising the issue of which components of legal practice no longer need to be done as “bespoke” individualized work, and which are amenable to either semi- or total automation.

2. Delivery

This session covered the changing nature of the delivery of legal services and the general nature of legal technology startups. The guest speakers were David Hornik, a VC at August Capital (and contributor to this issue), and Jason Lemkin, the founder of the e-signature company EchoSign (acquired by Adobe). We discussed the ways that various legal services could be, and were beginning to be, delivered online. First, from the legal perspective, we covered regulatory limitations related to UPL, monetization, referrals, fee-splitting, advertising, and law firm business structures. Second, we looked at the business perspective: various markets for legal services beyond just lawyers and law firms, including the non-served and under-served latent markets that are interested in reduced-cost and commoditized legal services. Some important issues here include not only identifying inefficiencies in the legal system, but also understanding the barriers to disrupting the status quo by looking at who profits from the inefficiencies. If we hope to produce legal technologists and spur successful startups, it is important to have lawyers understand the context under which new technology is likely to be adopted, and to look beyond the problems that exist to see which solutions might work in the real world. While the class did not focus on startups per se, many of the students and auditors were involved with startups at some level. The main point here is to understand what has changed in the world that might allow an entry of technology into the realm of legal practice and a broader transformation of the law in general. Finally, from the computational and informatics perspective, we discussed the componentization of legal functions – in this case, what the requirements might be for electronic signatures as an example. This perspective, dealt with in several sessions, was an attempt to have law students understand how to look at legal functions as data flow and processing in order to prepare them to work with engineers. Several articles in this issue discuss online delivery of legal services. Pieter Gunst's article, “Tomorrow's Lawyers,” discusses ways in which finding legal information and finding a well-matched attorney are increasingly accomplished online. Also, Loic Coutelier's article, “Leveraging Online Dispute Resolution to Improve Consumer Arbitration,” discusses the growing market for online dispute resolution, including the increasing sophistication of such services. Finally, Renee Knake explains how entrepreneurship is transforming legal services in her article, “Entrepreneurship and Innovation in Legal Services – Ideas for All Lawyers.”

3. Corporate

The session on corporate legal technology was meant to describe what corporations are doing currently and to explore some of their unmet needs. We focused on Google and Cisco. Our guest speaker was Miriam Rivera, the ex-deputy GC at Google. The reading included a piece about Mark Chandler, GC at Cisco, and the way that Cisco has been trying to restructure their relationship with law firms by increasing the use of flat fees while lowering the amount that they pay for much of their legal work year over year. Miriam described the early days of Google as the Wild West, with paper documents hidden away in boxes under desks. This was similar to the problems described by Cisco of having different NDA's for different relationships, with no one quite sure what was signed by whom. When Cisco moved to a more uniform NDA approach, covering 95% of their use, via an internal online system, they simplified the entire process, brought costs down, and could track all of them. Google recently focused on e-signatures; each e-signature saved close to an hour of work compared to paper signatures. Thus, rather than taking on automation of, say, regulatory compliance or legal risk analysis, they started with reasonably low-hanging fruit. Of course, it is impossible to discuss corporate legal technology without covering e-discovery and the plethora of associated problems. Part of the goal of this session was to get the students to understand the issues related to how corporations play a role in transforming law firms, and to understand the issues of data collection that would be necessary to build actuarial data required for better legal risk analysis. Finally, as with law firms, it was important to have students think about the legal functions performed by corporations from an informatics perspective.

4. Search

The session on search is near and dear to my heart, since it was my Ph.D. dissertation topic and I have worked in the field for years. The guest speaker was Anurag Acharya, who co-created Google Scholar. In addition to a prepared talk, Anurag presented many examples of case law search as viewed not by lawyers per se, but by non-lawyers. Anurag highlighted his goals of making sure that the law, that we are all responsible for following, is made freely available and easily understandable. One of his goals is to make sure that Google Scholar in general is always free. In presenting search, I wanted to explain to the students how a single class of technology was applicable to a wide array of legal problems (e.g. patents, case law, legal services, etc.). I also introduced the class to some of the basics of search such as an inverted index, common text search methods and concepts, and how text and non-text search can be merged into a single ranked result set. In addition, I wanted them to understand how we describe information and use that metadata to find things (e.g. author, geographical region, dates, cost, etc.). It was also interesting to get future lawyers to start looking at legal problems from a lay-person's self-help perspective – something we're reasonably accustomed to now in medicine, but that is somewhat new, and still difficult, in law.6

5. Data Privacy

While search can be viewed as a single class of engineering solution applicable to multiple legal problems, data privacy can be viewed from a complementary perspective: a legal problem requiring multiple engineering solutions (e.g. cookies, encryption, etc.). The guest speaker was Seth Schoen, an engineer with the EFF who spends a good portion of his day explaining technology to lawyers. Seth outlined some of the requirements for data privacy (e.g. confidentiality, integrity, authenticity, etc.). We also discussed some background issues such as the FTC's Safe Harbor protocol, how various technologies work, the relationship between TOS and “reasonable expectation of privacy”, onward transfers, and (failed) attempts at automating and simplifying user privacy settings (e.g. P3P). The goal for the students was to help them identify potential technologies for a given legal problem, and to better foresee what might be the legal ramifications of various types of upcoming technology.

6. Learning from Biomedical Informatics; Automation; Standards

Biomedical informatics has a long history and it informs legal informatics in many ways. As a result, the guest speaker for this session was Dr. Mark Musen, who helps run the biomedical informatics program at the Stanford Medical School and has done a lot of work in the area of ontologies and controlled vocabularies. The issues for the students included the similarities and differences not only in the current state of technology and informatics in the two fields, but also in the underlying drivers for the development of the field, as well as the differences in the related academic programs. For example, while there are several hundred Ph.D.'s awarded each year in biomedical informatics in the U.S., there are none, as far as I know, in legal informatics. We also used this session to discuss the role of automation and semi-automation – a theme that would continue to arise for the remainder of the class. Decision support systems, for example, could in principle be as helpful in legal issue spotting as they already are in medical diagnosis. We also discussed the use of standards in the development of automated systems as well as in computational systems in general. While there are many informatics standards in common use in medicine, their prevalence seems lacking in law, even though they would greatly assist in machine understanding of court opinions, statutes, etc.7


1.   The author would like to thank Larry Kramer, former Dean of Stanford Law School, currently President of the Hewlett Foundation, for the opportunity to teach the class. Back.

2.   I am not referring here to, say, the latest version of a phone or tablet, but rather a deeper re-invention of anything from e-discovery to automated contract formation. This will be covered in more detail later in this article, as well as in other articles in this issue. Back.

3.   Ethics rules and interpretations of the meaning of Unlicensed Practice of Law (UPL) have also been held out as contributing factors (see, e.g., the many writings of Stephanie Kimbro, among others). Back.

4.  Although beyond the scope of this article and issue, some of the reasons for the timing of this disruption include changes in attitude and comfort levels among the general public about online services, capabilities of technology such as enhanced text analysis and the prevalence of big data, the economic conditions that have accelerated changes that were already afoot, and more. For a detailed background and discussion of these topics, see the works of Richard Susskind, such as “The End of Lawyers?” and “Tomorrow's Lawyers” as a good starting place. Back.

5.  See recent issues of The Bottom Line, for example, as well as Susskind's work, mentioned above. Back.

6.  While law libraries have been open to the public and there have been pro se litigants for some time, I'm speaking more about the legal equivalent of, say, WebMD, which attempts to provide legal information to the general public in layman's terms. Back.

7.  Certainly there are inklings of standards via OASIS, LEDES, ILTSO, but there has not yet been wide-scale adoption. Back.


Our Missiong: Improve the quality of law practice through effective management and innovative technology


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