The Soul of Legal Writing

14 Sep

Prof Ian Gallacher of Syracuse Uni (USA) has published an interesting piece about whether Legal Writing could be done by a computer programme. In context, he is referring to professional training courses (the BPTC or LPC in the UK) – and to the ferocious criticism sometimes made by Judges of counsel’s efforts, of which Bradshaw v Unity Marine (2001) (Texas, USA) is merely an extreme example. However, the same question obviously applies to University Law too – perhaps more fully than Prof Gallacher realises. Could the tutors employ computers (‘androids’) to write assessments ? Could the students do likewise ? Could the tutors return the favour for the marking process ? (etc, etc …)

Prof Gallacher’s approach to this nightmare/noble dream (discuss…) is via the Philip K Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep ? – better known as the film Blade Runner (his article tells you enough of the story). The Prof picks up the test used in the film to tell an android (‘replicant’) from a human – that an android has no capacity for empathy. This, he suggests, is a core characteristic of human legal writing that a computer – however well-programmed – cannot mimic or perform. The more deeply a piece of writing depends on a relationship between those between whom it passes, the more empathy will matter, the more the difference between computer- and human- generation will be critical – and visible where it matters.

The argument is interesting – and as a lawyer and law tutor I hope a sound one. However, there is more to Blade Runner than that -as is perhaps clearer from the novel than from the film. Deckard – the hero/anti-hero – realises that he is not as different from the androids he hunts as he would like to believe – would he pass an empathy test ? (We never find out). This can be resolved in two ways. One is to theorise that Deckard is himself a replicant. Two is to treat this as a warning – that empathy is a most precious quality of humanity.

But this is not a common perception of lawyers. Perhaps when students begin to employ replicants to write their courseworks, then whether and how often we catch them will tell us as much about ourselves as about them …

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