The limits of technology and law

2014-05-27 13.45.59One of the first law lectures I attended, over 30 years ago, was given by Avrom Sherr. As we all settled ourselves, full of our importance as future lawyers, Avrom walked into the lecture theatre and lay on his back on the desk at the front of the hall. The hubbub subsided and there was a moment of uncertainty (embarrassment even) before he got to his feet to start the lecture.

The point of this act of theatre, we were informed, was as follows.

In previous centuries, medical students were taught from cadavers. As a consequence, everything they learned was pathology. More recently, medical science had caught up with the idea that most people were actually healthy and that there was probably more to be understood about the workings of healthy bodies than diseased and dead ones; certainly as much that would be useful to those charged with the care of the living.

Legal studies, Avrom argued, had a similar problem. By studying the pathology of the law (as found in centuries of case law), the real life of the law was lost. His impersonation of a cadaver was intended to remind us that although dissection of cases (like anatomy lessons) had a purpose in learning about law, we should not forget that the vast majority of legal actions (making contracts, administrative decision-making, etc) would never be even be the subject of litigation, let alone a reported case.

I was reminded of this experience, and the valuable lesson, by a short article in The Lawyer by Peter Kalis (chairman and global managing partner, K&L Gates), “Lawyers as robotic bores? It’s not the English way”. Mr Kalis will be writing a series of articles, and this one sets out his stall.

In future columns I’ll supply some thoughts on our evolving industry. In this inaugural venture, however, I wish to acknowledge my debt to the English legal tradition. In other words, I come in peace.

He singles out three legal academics whose work influenced him whilst at Oxford 40 years ago: HLA Hart, Sir Otto Kahn-Freund, and Mark Freedland.

Why do Professors Hart, Kahn-Freund and Freedland matter here? Their careers nicely illustrate that law is about ideas and the ability to express them, whether in service to clients or to scholarship.

In future columns you’ll see me challenge those who regard lawyers and their firms as anachronistic and those who would reduce us to automata and algorithms. It will be my way of saying thanks to Professors Hart, Kahn-Freund and Freedland, among so many others on your side of the pond.

That description of the purpose of law — “ideas and the ability to express them” — resonates with my experience as a raw undergraduate. After four years of study at Warwick, it was clearer than than ever to me that law doesn’t exist to give opportunities to judges and law reporters. As an academic discipline it can be a kind of applied social science — a combination of psychology, ethnology, economics, politics — that may help to describe how social and individual relationships might work out in the presence or absence of power. Unlike many of those other disciplines, law also has a practical life outside the academy. Its practitioners have the privilege of being able to help mediate in those relationships — supporting or opposing power as necessary.

Over the past few years, I have kept coming back to this point about relationships in my work and on this blog. I am more sure than ever that good law, sensitively practised, depends on an understanding of the people involved. That understanding requires the kind of insight into human relationships, desires and needs, power structures, that I suspect most people develop unconsciously.

Critically, though, technology struggles with this aspect of law as lived. It sometimes appears that the most vocal technology advocates forget this. As news this week about the Turing test shows, it is too easy to be blinded by overblown claims of what computers can do. The reality is usually much more limited. In this context, also, we need to know whether a piece of legal technology deals with a pathological legal problem or the real human issue that underlies the call to law. If it doesn’t look to the latter, then it will be of severely limited use. That is not to say it will be useless, just good for some things only.

 

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