The Friendship Algorithm of Dr. Sheldon Cooper (The Big Bang Theory)

Lawyers have the reputation of being, shall we say, weak when it comes to math. Of course, many lawyers stopped taking math when they graduated high school and followed degree paths in college that helped them avoid math. Some lawyers are math proficient (e.g. economics majors, most IP attorneys), but there is enough truth in the “weak in math” stereotype that it persists. As we start talking about using metrics in law, we can see many lawyers start to twitch and shiver, as nightmares of math tests come racing back. So, with full recognition that many lawyers already are traumatized by the modern fascination with big data, I bring you the newest hurdle: algorithms.

You Already Know Algorithms

An algorithm, defined informally, is “a set of rules that precisely defines a sequence of operations.” Algorithms exist all around us and you interact with them ever day (at least you do if you touch a computer). According to Alex (Sandy) Pentland, Professor Computer Science, MIT; Director, Human Dynamics Lab and the Media Lab Entrepreneurship Program, lawyers are very familiar with algorithms. As Professor Pentland says, “creating a law is just specifying an algorithm, and governance via bureaucrats is how you execute the program of law.”

That probably doesn’t give you much comfort, because most lawyers don’t think of themselves as cogs in an algorithm machine. They like to think that what they do has a higher meaning and design. Perhaps lawyers do exceed basic algorithmic work some of the time. But, it is hard to argue that much of what lawyers have come to do is not the application of algorithms to routine problems. You should become comfortable with the idea of algorithms, because they are becoming very familiar to your clients.

Algorithms are Transforming Your Clients

Ram Charan, the famed management consultant, recently published an article in Fortune called “The Algorithmic CEO.”[1] In the article, Charan explains how the digital revolution is affecting the leadership of businesses. Charan starts the article by saying, “The single greatest instrument of change in today’s business world, and the one that is creating major uncertainties for an ever-growing universe of companies, is the advancement of mathematical algorithms and their related sophisticated software.”

While Charan acknowledges that some of the change is in its early stages, the pace and magnitude of the change are such that this algorithmic transformation already is affecting businesses. Charan closes the short article by saying:

To some degree, every company will have to become a math house. This will require more than hiring new kinds of expertise and grafting new skills on the existing organization. Many companies will need to substantially change the way they are organized, managed, and led. Every organization will have to make use of algorithms in its decision-making. The use of algorithms will have to become as much a part of tomorrow’s management vocabulary as, say, profit margins and the supply chain are today. And every member of the executive team will need to understand his or her role in growing the business.

Be Algorithmic Or Be Forgotten

Lawyers, law firms and law departments that want to compete in this algorithmic world will have to more than hire a few techies. The practice of law is not immune to the algorithmic future, and legal service delivery will not be insulated from the world of computers. Lawyers and law organizations that want to survive the re-structuring of the industry must become adept at understanding and using technology, including algorithms, to deliver what clients want in legal services. Waiting for clients to request such changes will put the legal organization at an extreme disadvantage. By the time the client asks, the need is so well developed that an unresponsive department or firm will be well behind the curve to develop and adequate reply.

[1] The article is based on Charan’s recent book, The Attacker’s Advantage.