Why Are Lawyers Counting Words By Hand?

The Wall Street Journal last week contained an article by Jacob Gershman titled “Why Lawyers Object to Making Legal Briefs Briefer“.  The subject of the article is a proposal to sharing the number of words allowed in federal briefs from 14,000 to 12,500.  This is being considered because it is believed that the original formula for shifting from a page count to a word count incorrectly estimated the number of words on a typical page of a brief.

For those interested in the use of technology within the legal profession, the interesting part comes one third of the way through the article:

Michael Gans, clerk of the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis, who oversaw the word-count study, says the process couldn’t have been more painstaking. It was carried out by a high-school graduate who interned at his office and spent a recent summer in a cubicle counting every single word of 200 printed-out briefs that served as the sample.

“I felt sorry for her, but that’s what she did all summer,” Mr. Gans said. “She still wants to go to law school.”

While the young woman may have gathered some value from the exercise, overall it was pointless.  Assuming that these were briefs filed before electronic filings, the clerk could have used a scanner and optical character recognition technology to compete the task in a day, instead of causing an aspiring lawyer to spend hundreds of hours on a tedious task.  Moreover, in this type of situation – where no analysis is required – a computer is far more likely to be accurate.

Using technology would have freed up the young woman to perform more interesting tasks and would have led to an answer in a far shorter time frame.  When technology can replace repetitive and routine labor, lawyers should embrace it and focus their efforts on complex tasks that require analysis and judgement.