Junior lawyers outshone by computer programs?

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Technology – and, in particular, eDiscovery software – may soon render junior legal staff irrelevant, as technology dramatically transforms one of the most expensive aspects of litigation – discovery.

In a recent Bloomberg report, San Francisco economics reporter Aki Ito argued that technology could replace lawyers who pore over e-mails, spreadsheets, social media posts and other records to build arguments during the discovery process.

“Each lawsuit was too nuanced for a standard set of sorting rules, and the string of keywords lawyers suggested before every case still missed too many smoking guns,” writes Ito in the report. “The reading got so costly that many law firms farmed out the initial sorting to lower-paid contractors.”

However, Russell McVeagh partner Polly Pope, who stood as one of the guest speakers at last week’s Annual New Zealand eDiscovery Conference at Stamford Plaza in Auckland, tells Australasian Lawyer she believes technology is not replacing junior legal staff – it’s simply changing the way they work.

“If I look at what I did 15 years ago as a junior litigation lawyer when it came to discovery, I was working through mountains of boxes of hard copy documents,” says Pope.

“These days, our junior solicitors are actually employing a wider range of skills in eDiscovery because we have them working with forensic consultants to design and implement a collection of documents [and] implementing searches of electronic data. So although eDiscovery has…reduced the proportionate amount of time that junior lawyers spend reviewing documents as part of a discovery exercise, there’s still certainly an important place for lawyers in discovery.”

Andrew King, head of eDiscovery consultancy group eDiscovery Consulting, says the New Zealand legal market also differs from the US in that local firms don’t have the expansive teams of junior lawyers and paralegals that their North American counterparts do.

“What had to happen up until recently was that a lot of these juniors had to read through all of these documents; now the technology can help them get to the important stuff quicker and cheaper. Effectively, it speeds up the process as opposed to saying ‘you’re all going to be out of a job’, or anything like that.”

Pope says the rise of technology has led to an “explosion” of data which, in the litigation space, has created an entirely new set of tasks and skills around eDiscovery.

“I actually see technology as having increased the challenge for junior lawyers - and even technology at the forefront of eDiscovery…relies on lawyers to teach software what’s relevant and I can’t see any immediate danger of lawyers being replaced altogether. I guess it comes back to [the fact] that you look beyond discovery and the purpose of all the document review is to enable us to be able to present a case in court. There’s always going to be a role for lawyers as long as there’s a courtroom.”

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