An Ontology of Law and Technology

I propose the following ontology in order to describe intersections of law and technology. The defining factors are a) the relationship between law and technology, and b) the value proposition of the tool.

With regard to the relationship, it seems to me that there are the following alternatives:

  • Law for Technology
  • Technology for Law

The first category, L4T, includes things like intellectual property laws. It is legal rules that pertain to innovative methods of doing things. It is agnostic about the things.

The second category, T4L, includes those things that are technology, and which serve a purpose in the legal realm.

Law’s value propositions are well known, so L4T is not subdivided. However, technology can serve a large number of purposes, which seem to be poorly distinguished from one another under the banner #legaltech. T4L is therefore divided accordingly:

  • Technology which helps lawyers do what lawyers do.
  • Technology which helps consumers obtain value associated with legal services.
  • Technology for legal infrastructure.

The first is what we typically think of when we think of T4L. It is those products which are designed to take some aspect of being a lawyer and make it easier for lawyers. Into this category fall things like practice management tools, research tools, document automation tools which are lawyer-facing, e-Discovery, etc. This is Technology for Law for Lawyers: T4L4L.

The second category is technology which is not designed to help lawyers do things, but to help legal services customers obtain legal goods without the involvement of a lawyer. Examples include expert systems that give legal advice or draft legal documents for end users. This is Technology for Law for Clients: T4L4C. We will come back to this.

The third category is technology that is intended to underpin a legal system. This includes online dispute resolution, languages for the expression of electronic contracts executed by automated agents, and potentially infrastructure-like technologies like Blockchain. These are technologies for legal infrastructure: T4LI. There are some really interesting things going on in this area, but they are under the radar. That’s a topic for another day.

Now, T4L4C is further divided into two categories, one of which nay-sayers of legal technology seem to be unaware exists at all. The categories are:

  • T4L4C which replace service currently available.
  • T4L4C which provides services not already available.

The first is technology which provides to clients a service which might otherwise be provided by a lawyer. An example of this would include an automated web app which drafts a will for a person. This is Efficiency Technology for Law for Clients: ET4L4C.

The second is technology which provides to clients a service which is not currently provided by lawyers or other legal service providers. An example of this might be things like the do-not-pay chatbot. (It’s not clear to me whether or not legal services combatting parking tickets were available anywhere near as affordably, if at all, prior to Do-Not-Pay, but I’m assuming here that they were not.) This is Accessibility Technology for Law for Clients: AT4L4C.

Which I would like to suggest we should pronounce “atalack.”

There is an argument to be made that the difference between ET4L4C and AT4L4C is one of degree, not category. That is granted. But whether or not anyone has found an economically viable way of providing a particular legal service is an important distinction, though it may only be a difference in the value to cost ratio. Here’s why:

When someone says “the robots are coming for our jobs” they are talking, necessarily, about ET4L4C. Only things that do what lawyers are currently doing, but more efficiently, can eliminate legal jobs. T4L4L will not do that, it will only have the effect of making the lawyers more efficient and reducing the cost. Most importantly, AT4L4C will not do that. Because no lawyers are employed doing what AT4L4C does. That’s the definition of the category.

Now, the question is this: where is the low-hanging fruit in T4L4C? Is the low-hanging fruit in ET4L4C, or AT4L4C?

I suggest that the answer is clearly in AT4L4C, because AT4L4C is the category that includes “good enough legal services.” A “good enough legal service” is like a wills kit in a stationary store. It is discount legal services. It is made profitable by volume, not be value. And it is “good enough” because when your alternative is something you absolutely cannot afford, anything is better than nothing.

If automation is your tool, and you have the option of walking into a partially served market of higher value and lower volume work, or a completely unserved market of lower value and higher volume work, where are you going to go?

You’re not going to use legal automation to represent people in court. You’re going to use it to make people less frightened of going to court. You’re going to use it to help people understand and fill out forms. You are going to use it to explain the basic principles of debt defense so that they can avoid default judgment. Lawyers benefit from having fewer clients to whom they provide more expensive services. They want ET4L4L. Robots benefit from being able to compete where there area very large number of clients while lawyers can’t. That is AT4L4C.

So AT4L4C is going to:

a) improve access to justice, and

b) do absolutely nothing to reduce the amount of work that lawyers get.

Then, at some point in the future, T4L4L is going to get so good that it is going to make lawyers capable of doing more, better, faster, and more efficiently. This is going to reduce costs, increase the range of services available, and:

a) improve access to justice, and

b) increase the demand for lawyers.

Only if the effect of ET4L4C is stronger than the effect of T4L4L, or, if AT4L4C saturates its own market and starts infringing on the ET4L4C market, will we see a drop in demand in the market for actual lawyers. But there is no reason to believe that will happen. Lawyers, by billing hourly, have a built-in incentive not to adopt T4L4L. Technology companies have no similar motivation not to adopt AT4L4C, and AT4L4C is more appealing that ET4L4C.

But let’s say for the sake of argument something weird happens, and the demand for the services of lawyers drops precipitously. Nothing will stimulate the development of T4L4L like a bunch of lawyers looking for a strategic advantage in order to get business from one another.

So if you make a commitment to stay well ahead of the curve on your ability to deploy new technology in the provision of legal services, you innoculate yourself to that downside.

So just keep learning, and everything will be fine.

Keep calm, and atalack on.

Written by

Lawyer, Round Table Law; 2018/2019 ABA Innovation Fellow; Sessional Instructor, University of Alberta; Computational Law (Symbolic AI) Researcher, CCLaw @ SMU

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