Why lawyers should have a linguist on speed dial in the 2020s.
Gartner predicts that by 2024, legal departments will replace 20% of their legal team with professional staff (actually they used the non-PC term, non-lawyers).
It may be natural to assume these professionals are legal operations specialists.
But could it in time mean linguists and data scientists too?
Curious to test my own hypothesis, I connected with Dr Alexander “Alec” Sugar, who has been part of the product team at LexCheck for over two years, starting as Junior Product Manager and now serving as the Director of Data Science.
It’s a Thursday evening in New York City for PhD Dr Alec. Church bells chime at the start of our Zoom. Based on first impressions I can sense this is going to be a fascinating conversation.
Linguistics is the scientific study of language – endangered, existing and new. In the tech space, linguists play an important role in harnessing Natural Language Processing (a type of artificial intelligence) technologies to process data.
In fact, we are supported by the work of linguists every day: when we Google, or when we converse with voice activated apps Alexa or Siri, for example.
In law land, linguistics is central to harnessing natural language processing technologies for contract review. But it’s a team effort to create and maintain AI that is as good as (or better) than a human at contract red lining. Leading a small team linguists, Dr Alec works hand in glove with the company’s in-house lawyers, sales, marketing, and of course software developers.
Dr Alec admits that the language of contracts has its own complexity, which has been “fun to learn”.
And this is coming from someone whose love of foreign languages runs deep – from his first childhood exposure to Spanish while traveling to Central America with his family, to dabbling in Turkish and Russian, reading in French and speaking Mandarin as well as Uyghur, a Turkic minority language spoken in western China.
In a work context, Dr Alec has been pleasantly surprised by how much lawyers and linguists are “close cousins”. By their nature, lawyers are prescriptive linguists – focused on the detail, analysing nuances of communication, looking closely at phrasing etc. to make sure the right message is delivered to the other party.
When a linguist encounters a novel linguistic phenomenon in the world, their job is to observe, describe and analyse the phenomenon not in terms of arbitrary labels like correct or incorrect, but in terms of the structures governing the pattern and the communicative purpose that this language usage serves in certain contexts. That’s how Dr Alec can turn a blind eye to badly written text messages, Tweets or restaurant menus.
His current role requires him to be less academic. As a leading linguist in legal tech, he is adept at harnessing the latest technologies – either off the shelf or LexCheck built – to apply standards of correct and incorrect language in contracts.
There’s certainly ample opportunity for lawyers to be inspired by this “tech first” approach. Dr Alec and his team are curious, future focused, feel a sense of urgency to remain at the cutting edge, for the benefit of the product’s end users.
Contracts – actually most legal documents – are big batches of linguistic data ripe for efficient processing by technology.
My bet is that lawyers of all stripes will be interacting with linguists, directly or indirectly, into the future.
And to all those lawyers who consider themselves grammar and syntax afficionados, having a linguist on speed dial, or in your team, may be more in your comfort zone than you think!
Thanks for taking the time to read my post.
Stay positive and future focused.
In 2021, I’m on a mission to help law and business adapt to the digital age. I invite you to build your Innovation Intelligence (what I call IQ2.0) with me: