Monday, March 07, 2011

Call me back when a court sanctions a computer

As part of a worthwhile article on a "hollowed-out" jobs economy, where midlevel jobs can be performed by computers, the NYT waxes a tad breathless over computers that can do document review for lawyers:
Now, thanks to advances in artificial intelligence, “e-discovery” software can analyze documents in a fraction of the time for a fraction of the cost. In January, for example, Blackstone Discovery of Palo Alto, Calif., helped analyze 1.5 million documents for less than $100,000.

Some programs go beyond just finding documents with relevant terms at computer speeds. They can extract relevant concepts — like documents relevant to social protest in the Middle East — even in the absence of specific terms, and deduce patterns of behavior that would have eluded lawyers examining millions of documents.

“From a legal staffing viewpoint, it means that a lot of people who used to be allocated to conduct document review are no longer able to be billed out,” said Bill Herr, who as a lawyer at a major chemical company used to muster auditoriums of lawyers to read documents for weeks on end. “People get bored, people get headaches. Computers don’t.”
That's swell and useful, but what happens if and when the computer misses a document and you fail to produce it -- or fail to recognize its value for your client?

I can do a word search on a scanned PDF document, but I know that scans don't always catch every instance of the word. Does the scan relieve me of my duty to actually read the document?


  1. "People get bored, people get headaches. Computers don't."

    ... People get sanctioned, people go to jail. Computers don't.

  2. Exactly. I can't even blame my paralegal to excuse myself in court; and now I'm gonna blame my computer?

  3. When I started working with computerized databases in the 80s, I discovered that I knew a huge amount more about the documents and depositions from having either analyzed them myself or supervised lawyers doing that analysis (and checking the work). We could run circles around the other side in locating documents and information.

    But at that time and ever since, folks have been marketing litigation support software that was supposed to take the thinking out of analysis and do it by machines. I've yet to see it proved they've accomplished that. I have used this kind of approach for a quick-and-dirty starting point, but the handwork still seems to be necessary.

    I would commend to anyone who thinks otherwise a reading of Judge Mills's opinions in that Grand Casino sanctions litigation. Yes, I know intentional coverups were also involved, but it appears to me to have started with folks running searches against computer databases and doing not much (or nothing) more.