Rage against the machine

You’re surely familiar with those lists of famously bad technology predictions that make the rounds by e-mail every so often. One of the most commonly cited is Digital Equipment Chairman Ken Olsen’s 1977 observation: “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.”

Amusing, sure, but rarely quoted in the proper context. Olsen was talking about the undesirability of household super-computers that would control every aspect of our lives. He was fully aware of the desktop PC and its potential as a powerful business tool; his point was that there are certain aspects of our lives that no rational person would want to delegate to a machine.

So when you hear someone say, “Computers will never be able to replace lawyers,” consider what that might mean. Could a computer someday stand and cross-examine witnesses in court? Could it deliver wise counsel to a CEO preparing for a takeover bid or a spouse preparing for a custody battle? Could it form a trusted advisor relationship with a family business over 20 years of service?

Probably not. But how many lawyers are doing that now?

Here’s what many lawyers are doing today: they’re guiding testators through wills, assisting on house purchases, and filing complicated forms for everyone from immigrants coming to Canada to companies going public. They’re answering client questions by applying established legal rules to fact situations and predicting likely outcomes. They’re resolving disputes by finding appropriate financial settlement points between parties.

In short, they’re facilitating transactions — and in the 21st century, transaction facilitation is machine work. Just ask your instant teller, or your e-mail server, or Amazon.ca — or the secretary you haven’t needed since Windows 95 came out. Raise your hand if you see something in that previous paragraph that a sophisticated software program simply can’t do — and be assured, software has become extraordinarily sophisticated.

The threat to our profession isn’t from computers replicating what lawyers can do. The threat is from lawyers replicating what computers can do.

When we apply specialized knowledge from legal databases, use logical analysis skills to answer a question, or escort a client step-by-step through a complex process, we are on computers’ turf. When we display sincere empathy, use real wisdom and intuition, and connect with our clients as people, then computers can’t touch us.

For the moment, anyway.

This post originally appeared as the editorial in the October 2006 issue of National magazine.