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Will Technology Displace Lawyers in e-Discovery?

Remember the folk tale of John Henry, the railway worker who went head to head in a contest of efficiency with a steam-drill to prove that man was superior to machine?  Henry beat the machine, but worked himself to death to do it. 

I was reminded of John Henry in reading this Wall Street Journal article about law firms' efforts to stave off automation of the e-discovery process.  As WSJ reports, tech companies are developing tools that can perform many tasks previously handled by teams of attorneys -- such as weeding out duplicate or irrelevant material and identifying privileged documents.  Automation results in substantial cost savings since by culling documents, lawyers can review a smaller amount of material.  According to Hewlett-Packard, automated e-discovery tools could reduce the cost of review of 100 gigabytes of data from $180,000 to $25,000. 

But law firms aren't convinced that these new tools are effective and remain concerned that companies may wind up spending more money in the long run to fix mistakes.  For example, Robert Brownstone, a partner at Fenwick & West,  described a situation where a client declined to have attorneys oversee an e-mail archive search, relying on internal IT staff to handle the job for less.  The IT workers disposed of files that legally, needed to be preserved -- and while the documents were recovered, the client also wound up paying Fenwick more to fix the problem than it would have cost to retain the firm for oversight at the outset.

Are today's lawyers the new John Henrys of discovery, a last line in the sand to preserve a way of doing business that's fast fading into the sunset?  Like John Henry, lawyers correctly make the point that not everything can be automated and that by relying on machines, we lose some of the craftsmanship and judgment that individuals bring to a project.  On the other hand, John Henry worked himself to death to prove his point -- is that really what lawyers want?

H/T EDD Blog Online.

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on August 22, 2008 at 11:14 AM | Permalink | Comments (1)


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