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Why lawyer's can't spell - but can do law

In his new book “The Glass Cage: Where Automation is Taking Us” Nicholas Carr presents an entertaining but sceptical take on what automation is doing to lawyers. Peter Birkett of Howard Kennedy replies.

The catch is that we become so reliant on the technology that we lose the underlying skill.  How many of us rely on spell checker for words like manoeuvre (phew, got it first time)?  I can’t remember phone numbers for my family because they are programmed into my mobile.

But that is not the whole story.  In his review for The Daily Telegraph, John Preston cites the example of doctors cutting and pasting clinical notes from earlier versions so patient details become homogenised.  He sees this as a new phenomenon.

Maybe he should have read a lease I once had to work on, from a City firm, running to over 100 pages.  For a simple office lease.

Typed leases

That was probably the low point in drafting but showed the effect of word processing.  When leases were still typed, or even hand written, word economy was a valuable resource.  Word processing made documents bloated because the only limit to production was the time taken to print and the amount of paper the printer would hold.

Lately we have seized the initiative back from the dread machines.  My CV includes drafting a full shopping centre turnover rent lease which fitted into thirty pages, a fact of which my inner nerd is unnaturally proud.

I also have direct experience of working with document automation software and that created exactly the opposite problem that is presented in The Glass Cage.  The software we used created a questionnaire, the answers to which would feed through the silicon brain and generate a customised document from the precedent.  Each point was addressed with a question, a structured answer box (single choice, multiple choice or direct input) and space for guidance, including hyperlinks.

We chose to start with a standard property sale contract and launched it at the team with a genuine fear that we were removing the need for understanding and skill.

Driverless train

In response there were many comments on the novelty of the process and the fear of metaphorically boarding a train with no driver, but the one consistent comment came in the form “I never realised how much I didn’t know”.

The cut and paste mentality of word processing had removed a lot of background knowledge but being asked whether, for example, a contract should contain provision for capital allowances left lawyers wondering “does it?” and realising that maybe they needed to understand better what drove the decision.

It quickly became clear that we had a fantastic training tool at our disposal and that fed into the process of setting up the guidance that led users through the questionnaire.

Technology can take over the process but it can also add to the skill base.  Maybe if we do find ourselves in a glass cage we should just throw a few stones.

Peter Birkett is an Associate in the Real Estate team at Howard Kennedy.  He can be reached by email:  Visit 

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