Lawyers and computers: research that once took hours takes minutes

* A client in need of a lawyer's advice, stopping by the Braintree, Mass., office of John Adams in 1765, usually received his advice on the spot -- and, as we might say today, off the top of the lawyer's head.

* A client telephoning his lawyer at a major firm in 1965 was most unlikely to receive any advice immediately: The law had grown too complex for even legal specialists to keep everything in mind.

* In 1981, however, a client calling his lawyer for advice may once again receive it on the spot. While lawyer and client are talking on the telephone, the lawyer may turn to a small computer terminal on his desk or a nearby table and conduct a quick but thorough search through an electronic law library.

John Adams had immersed himself thoroughly in such texts as Coke's "Institutes" and Gilbert's "On Feuds and Feudal Tenures"; he had served his apprenticeship, and he carried in his head almost all he might need to advise a client and plead his case. If he needed more law, he had a few books and had access to a few more. If he needed still more law, he might repair to the library at Harvard College.

In any event, the lawm -- English and American statutes, case precedents, and learned commentaries -- was all contained within a library not too large for a lawyer to know with comfortable familiarity. How he might apply the law to cases was another matter, but the law was within his ken or his easy reach.

This is certainly not the case for lawyers today. Even a specialist looking at anything more than a routine matter feels compelled to check the most recent decisions, regulatory pronouncements, and perhaps even what is pending in Congress before venturing to advise a client. Until recently the lawyer certainly did not have all he needed within easy reach. His firm might have a library of 10,000 volumes housed in its own offices -- with the equivalent of a score of new volumes arriving every day. More and more of a lawyer's time was spent in legal research, which had become a time-consuming and therefore expensive process.

Today, the computer has changed all this. Pecking at the keys as he talks with his client, the lawyer can, in a matter of minutes do research in a law library of many thousands of volumes. Research that used to take hours, sometimes even days, now is commonly done in less than a quarter of an hour.

Through the same terminal, the lawyer also has access to an electronic library of general information -- newspapers, magazines, wire-service stories, important reference works, and so on. In minutes, he can make himself better informed, not just on the law, but on an almost infinite variety of matters.

Computer-assisted research is by no means the only way computers serve the legal profession; but it represents the most sophisticated application of computer technology to the practice. It certainly has had the greatest effect to date and probably has the greatest potential for effecting revolutionary change.

So, has the computer actually revolutionized the practice of law? The answer is no, not yet. Will it? Probably.

The impact of computer-assisted legal research can be variously estimated. The system suppliers will not disclose their sales figures; but Mead Data Central, supplier of LEXIS, which is by far the leading system, says it has taught more than 100,000 lawyers and judges to use LEXIS. Since there are not more than half a million lawyers in the United States, about one-third of whom are not actively practicing, it would seem that almost 30 percent of America's working bar has learned to use LEXIS. Mead says more than 25,000 LEXIS searches are done each day.

The numbers may exaggerate the phenomenon. To say a lawyer has learned to use a computer for research is not to say he actually does use it. To say 25, 000 searches a day are done does not mean that number of research projects are completed with it -- since it is often used to do only a part of a project.

Nonetheless, there can be no question that computer-assisted legal research has had a major effect on the practice of law. At first, it was regarded as expensive, and at first only the largest law firms thought they could afford it. The price has come down. What is far more significant, the profession has come to regard computer-assisted legal research, not as an oddity or as a luxury or even as an option, but as commonplace and a necessity. Many small firms and solo practitioners now do research with computer assistance, and the day cannot be far off when virtually every law office will do so.

Granting, then, that more and more lawyers do their research with computer assistance, what difference does it make?

How John Adams applied the law to his clients' problems was, we suggested, another matter. It is still another matter: a matter of professional skill and judgment. The computer can find the law. It cannot apply it to the client's problem. We find it necessary from time to time to remind ourselves that the computer, for all its apparent sophistication, still has exactly the same amount of intelligence, discretion, and judgment as a bicycle: that is to say, none at all. The computer can reach into a vast library and quickly extract what the lawyer has ordered: the statutes, regulations, and cases that look as though they apply to the problem. Whether they in fact do is a matter of judgment that remains beyond the computer's ability.

Still there is a potential for even greater results. Programs are at hand which will help the lawyer with the facts, too. For some time lawyers have been using the computer to dig specific and sometimes obscure facts out of huge accumulations of documents, to check the testimony of one witness against that of another, and so on. From this, it is only a step to use the computer to identify likely matches between facts and law. They will be only likelym matches , however -- not the kind on which a lawyer could responsibly advise his client. Judgment remains elusive for the machine.

For now at least, the computer can make a lawyer more efficient. It can make his work more thorough. It can free him from drudgery and allow him to devote a greater proportion of his time to the intellectual and judgmental aspects of his profession. It can make his work less costly to his client. The computer cannot make a lawyer of a layman. It cannot make a good lawyer out of a bad one.

There has been, too, a reverse effect --lawyer on computer. Lawyers played a major role in the design of LEXIS. They defined their needs and worked closely with information scientists to design a system to meet those needs. They refused to be intimidated by computer mysticism or to let the tail wag the dog. As a result, LEXIS flies in the face of longstanding elements of conventional wisdom.

For example, LEXIS searches efficiently in the full text of legal materials, not in the indexes or digests that the conventional wisdom insisted were necessary. It can search for any word or combination of words that occurs in the text, not just for predetermined descriptors or index terms -- something more the lawyers were told was not feasible.

What is far more significant is that the lawyers themselves use LEXIS; they do not need the aid of technicians or information specialists. With a couple of hours' instruction and maybe an hour or two of practice, any lawyer is his own computer expert, capable of carrying on a friendly dialogue with a huge, unbelievably complex machine.

The lawyer communicates in plain English. If the lawyer makes an error, the computer points it out and tells how to correct it. The dialogue is, generally, at conversational speed. This is why the lawyer with a client on the telephone might elect to call the computer and check a point of law with the client still on the line. There will be other research problems too difficult for that; but those, too, can be worked very comfortably, using the computer as a familiar tool, an extension of the intellect in the same way a hand tool is an extension of the arm and hand.

Lawyers are not alone in having had this impact on computer science. They have contributed, however, to an immeasurably important development -- making the computer a commonplace tool that even the technologically illiterate can use. That is, of course, the comi ng major breaththrough in computer science.

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