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Resist the Robolawyer

Ed. note: Frank H. Wu is the Chancellor and Dean of the University of California Hastings College of the Law. He’s currently sharing some of his thoughts about legal education and other topics here on Above the Law.

In the modern economy, we are trying to achieve with people what we have done with machines. We want individual workers to be “plug and play.” The term refers to computer equipment that can function immediately, without the need for elaborate set-up; you merely plug it into a power supply and it starts to play what it’s supposed to.

I have thought about, and startups are implementing, the delivery of legal services equivalent to ride-sharing services. Imagine a database that offered a list of lawyers whom you could meet in your area (if you even wanted to see them face to face), during a specific time period, with searchable specializations. If they were pre-cleared for conflicts and had set prices for particular tasks, the user would click to reserve an appointment and be all set.

Call it “Ziplawyer.” Apologies to Zipcar.

Maybe combine it with a ratings service. Behold: a new structure for the profession.

The model is great for consumers. It gives them information and options. The access to the marketplace fosters competition.

But the model also is advantageous for members of the bar. It allows solo practitioners who are tech-savvy to punch above their weight, as the saying goes. They can reach many more people than they could by traditional means, who need exactly what they have to offer.

Yet I am enthusiastic about these possibilities only to a point. I am reminded of Robocop 2….

In the original Robocop, set in my hometown of Detroit, a police officer who has been tortured and killed is then brought back to life as a half-human cyborg. In the sequel, depicting a worse dystopia, the company that runs the metropolis has decided it will manufacture an upgraded model of its “product” to serve the public trust, protect the innocent, and uphold the law.

The goal of turning human beings into robots is thwarted, however, by the reluctance of virtually all reasonable persons to be transformed thus. In a scene that is hilarious and frightening, the prototypes are introduced.

The first shoots everyone in the laboratory before committing suicide. The corporate head of the project observes, “They all go crazy.”

No doubt there is “commodity” work in legal practice. But even what might be reduced to routine still involves people’s lives. Between off-the-shelf legal forms and high-end bespoke opinion letters lies the range of human problems amenable to human remedies.

I will wager that, while we strive to introduce actual automation as well as scientific management (“Taylorism” for the aficionados) to law, the best lawyers will remain those who form meaningful relationships with clients. The most sophisticated matters demand not only judgment but also creativity, and the experts who possess those qualities do not wish to be treated as if they were a device for dispensing advice.

Officer Murphy had no choice but to be turned into Robocop. We need not allow ourselves to be turned into Robolawyers.

Frank H. Wu is Chancellor & Dean of University of California Hastings College of the Law. He also is the author of Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White (affiliate link).

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