Automated contracts, free legal documents and the singularity

I wrote about the coming legal practice singularity recently. Legal practice is changing rapidly and the prospect of a sufficiently advanced artificial intelligence to start taking over many legal research and similar tasks is fascinating. Unfortunately for many lawyers the wait may not be quite as long as it may take for such artificial intelligence to arrive on the scene.

IBM machine, City Hall

Lawyers are accustomed to services that offer standard contracts for reduced prices. Some retailers and bookstores have been selling common agreements like leases and powers of attorney for quite some time now and there are a number of online options too, including Law Unlocked which was pointed out to me today. The next step is a site which promises a DIY solution which should scare lawyers who rely on legal documents themselves for their fee income.

A Desktop Lawyer screenshot

Desktop Lawyer offers a self-service option to customers whereby they can have fairly complex agreements like shareholders agreements prepared for them by answering a series of questions. The process is apparently so dynamic that you actually see the document take shape as you work through the questions. The end result is a document that goes beyond the current “one size fits all” model because the service’s users will be able to download a fairly customised agreement that better suits their specific needs. This is unlikely to be the end of the road for the technology and we will likely see more and more advanced solutions that will replace lawyers whose focus is document production as an end in itself. In other words, the market for “search and replace” precedents will give way to these sorts of smarter and more cost effective solutions.

This likely future touches on my thoughts about the current legal services model and the very real need for lawyers to rethink the value proposition in their work. The days of value being based on time or documents are just about over and lawyers who can’t adapt will struggle to survive. The value in legal services is in lawyers’ knowledge of the law and how to use the law to develop appropriate and effective legal frameworks for clients. The documents reflecting or embodying those frameworks are worth about as much as the paper they are printed on.

In keeping with this emerging reality, I am rethinking what my clients will be charged for going forward. We will start removing documents as line items in our invoices and effectively treat them as free. Documents we produce for our clients will be released to those clients under a Creative Commons license to enable clients to make more flexible use of those documents and I am working on a service for clients which will effectively release fairly standard documents to participating clients as a value add at no charge for the documents themselves. I am still working on the parameters of this pseudo-open source approach to legal practice and will ensure that important considerations like client confidentiality and custom legal frameworks are adequately protected but the days of charging for relatively standard legal documents are coming to an end.

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