Digging into Algorithms: Legal Ethics and Legal Access
54 Pages Posted: 10 Aug 2021
Date Written: 2020
The current discussions around algorithms, legal ethics, and expanding legal access through technological tools gravitate around two themes: (1) protection of the integrity of the legal profession and (2) a desire to ensure greater access to legal services. The hype cycle often pits the desire to protect the integrity of the legal profession against the ability to use algorithms to provide greater access to legal services, as though they are mutually exclusive. In reality, the arguments around protecting the profession from the threats posed by algorithms represent an over-fit in relation to what algorithms can actually achieve, while the visions of employing algorithms for access to justice initiatives represent an under-fit in relation to what algorithms could provide. A lack of precision about algorithms results in blunt protections of professional integrity leaving little room for the potential benefits of algorithmic tools. In other words, this incongruence persists because of imprecise understandings and unrealistic characterizations of the algorithmic technologies and how they fit within the broader technology of law itself. This Article provides an initial set of tools for empowering lawyers with a better understanding of, and critical engagement with, algorithms. With the goal of encouraging a more nuanced discussion around the ethical dimensions of using algorithms in legal technology—a discussion that better fits technological reality—the Article argues for lawyers and non-technologists to shift away from evaluating legal technology through a lens of mere algorithms—as though they can be evaluated outside of a specific context—to a focus on understanding algorithmic systems as technology created, manipulated, and used in a particular context. To make this argument, this Article first reviews the current use of algorithms in legal settings, both criminal and civil, reviewing the related literature and regulatory responses. This Article then uses the shortcomings of legal technology lamented by the current literature and the related regulatory responses to demonstrate the importance of shifting our collective paradigm from a consideration of law and algorithms to law and algorithmic systems. Finally, this Article offers a framework for use in assessing algorithmic systems and applies the framework to algorithmic systems employed in the legal context to demonstrate its usefulness in accurately separating true tensions from those that merely reverberate through the hype cycle. In using the framework to reveal areas at the intersection of law and algorithms truly most ripe for progress, this Article concludes with a call to action for more careful design of both legal systems and algorithmic ones.
Keywords: Legal technology, algorithms, algorithmic systems, artificial intelligence, machine learning, due process
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