The Firm of Robot, Robot, & Hwang

May 7th, 2012

Tim Hwang, who co-founded a mock law-firm, Robot, Robot, & Hwang, is interviewed about his goal of using technology to disrupt the legal profession.

One thing that got me intrigued about law was that industry-wide it has the same kind of structure as older industries that have been disrupted by technology: a small class of people that’s based on control of information, protected by regulations. Law hasn’t had its Napster moment yet, though everyone recognizes it’s an incredibly inefficient structure now and the legal profession is in incredible disarray. Part of it is because the industry hasn’t been innovative–not just in training lawyers but in practice. Lawyers tend to be sort of tech-adverse–I hear lots of stories like this one about the partner at a firm who gets his emails printed, writes responses in longhand, and has his secretary type the replies.

There’s already been a lot happening with consumer DIY services and e-discovery. In litigation, e-discovery, the practice of deploying smart search technologies to trawl through mountains of evidence, has been a really powerful technology. It automates a lot of what lawyers currently do, but it still leaves the overall structure intact in a way that’s not very progressive.

The idea of Robot Robot & Hwang is to experiment with computers and legal code to disrupt the norms of the industry and give way to something better and more innovative. I have in mind a different approach that brings the kind of big-data analysis we see being applied elsewhere to the law. An example of this is a company called Lex Machina, which does data mining on judges’ records and makes quantitative predictions about what they will do in the future. That sort of stuff is really powerful. It takes the responsibilities and talents attributed to lawyers and gives them to someone else as well. Also, the way forms are done now tend to be pretty flat–with online services you’re mostly just paying for PDF documents, but if it’s, say, a municipal complaint, you could add a tool to file it directly, in a really a simple way.

And on opposition from entrenched interests:

When I first launched Robot Robot & Hwang, it got picked up by the American Bar Association blog, and it’s been a bit polarizing. I meet a number of attorneys who cling to the idea that being a human in the system I provide some undefinable, abstract value. Some of these traditional attorneys have reacted with skepticism or outright hatred. Law students have also been less receptive, because the idea of Robot Robot & Hwang is adverse to their interests. They need to do mundane, simple tasks early in their careers, and this would take away that. It’s an empirical question–you put the technology in place and see who wins. Some things are better done by machines, some by humans.

The people who are pro come from lots of places–the community of entrepreneurs congealing around this stuff, for example. And the Stanford Center for Computers and the Law has been very supportive of what I’m doing. So are law schools who are second- or third-tier in the U.S. News & Word Report “caste system”–they’re trying to figure out how stay ahead of what’s going on.

H/T Legal Informatics Blog