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Something for the #Legalit Weekend: Speeka da lingo? asks Andy Stokes

The irascible Andy Stokes fears he is changing from a middle aged curmudgeon into an ‘AI’ evangelist…

The irascible Andy Stokes fears he is changing from a middle aged curmudgeon into an ‘AI’ evangelist…

Recently I was reading a pretty good piece on Legal IT Insider which never the less caused me to I bristle with annoyance, because the piece several times referred to ‘the intranet’ – when in fact it referred to content on an intranet. So I responded thusly – “And so the misunderstanding that content available on the intranet is the whole of the intranet continues to be propagated. “. Which was swiftly followed by Charles Christian’s response … “Come on Andy – you can’t just make a comment like that and not expect me to ask for an opinion piece on it?”

Well I do have an opinion – two in fact, one derived from the other. Firstly, one derived from the fact that the phrase ‘intranet’ keeps being used in a technically incorrect fashion. It’s the same as the difference between the ‘Internet’ and ‘The World Wide Web’. And when people use it incorrectly then as an IT professional then it rankles me, it makes me feel that my knowledge is undervalued and ignored, that people think it’s OK to continually misuse phrases that have particular technical meaning to me. And this happens a lot in the legal industry; things go uncorrected, non-IT people are technically imprecise, people are allowed to use tools which are specifically not intended to be used that way (I often refer to Excel as ‘an idiots first database’). Even technical colleagues misuse such phrases, just so the dumb people can understand what the heck we’re talking about.

But despite being an irritable middle aged curmudgeon, my opinion on such things is not what it sounds like above. Because my first opinion is not that “These dumb bloody people should get it right! They should be made to!” Actually my opinion is that it is my thinking that’s wrong. The rest of the world should not have to conform to my idiosyncratic ways, petty annoyances and arsy compulsive obsessions. And there are very good reasons why not…

Firstly, these ‘bloody dumb’ people are… well, they’re marketing professionals, accountants and partners in law firms. Highly intelligent people who have their own areas of expertise that I’m sure I’m always misrepresenting or over simplifying to their equal annoyance. After all, I use and pay solicitors and accounts for their expertise precisely because I lack it. So chill out, a bit of give and take is all that’s needed. After all, I actually know perfectly well what they think they mean.

Secondly, my being arsy can cost my clients money. I recently, as requested, extracted data from a one to many (client to matter) data relationship into a de-normalised Excel – grrrrr! – spreadsheet. And I was then asked to supress the repeated client data because ‘it might confuse the partners’. Now I don’t think it would have, they’re clever people. But imagine if it did? How much billable time would be wasted because of my being awkward, confusing people and insisting that ‘dumb’ partners should properly learn to understand data relationships? So I gladly changed the data presentation to suit the audience. Of course there is a cost to the client in me doing that, but the cost is very much less for me to make the change than it is to lose billable time for dozens of partners… plus, of course, I get paid to do it.

And lastly, it’s important to understand that we IT geeks actually have a lot more in common with ‘overly wordy, non-technical solicitors’ than you might think. The type of precision my petty behaviour craves is precisely the type of precision that is used in legal documents. They are finely crafted to have specific meaning in order that they can be interpreted correctly. So we actually have a lot more in common than it seems, we just use different methods and words which are appropriate to our professional circumstances.

There are of course times when technical precision and specification is vital, but my first conclusion is that it’s not the users that have to be precisely correct in terms of my language and then work within the confines of the system I provide, rather that it is up to me to respect them, understand what they mean within their own context and make the system suit to work with their own business language and context.

So wouldn’t it be great if Legal IT could just get over the asinine kind of behaviour I mention, and make things easier for the people with whom the greatest productivity gains can be made; the people who actually do the legal work. After all, there’s more profit to be made in legal process efficiency then there ever can be in making IT staff redundant. How much more efficient, and profitable, would things be if Legal IT systems could work with users in a way that naturally suits them, rather than in a way that has to suit ‘the system’.

Well, my second opinion (I did say one lead on from the other) is that such changes are happening right now and that I think this is where we’re currently seeing the greatest strides in legal productivity gain. Whereas the UI of one large PMS supplier I work with used to be designed by their programmers and was cumbersome and clunky, nowadays it is designed by UI specialists in conjunction with real world end users. Yes, it takes more time and money to do it that way, but the end result is a much more efficient system that users can be more productive with, and which makes the product more saleable. And the supplier is rightly proud of having made such a change, which is now becoming considered the normal and rational way to do things.

However the really big change that we’re starting to see is where the third item I referred to above is impacting. Because, in their own way, the law and legal documents are as precise and therefore easily subject to correct interpretation as any piece of computer programming, then the two are starting to come together. Where Legal IT suppliers are creating systems that speak the same lingo that the users do and can understand and interpret the context in which they work, then this is starting to make inroads into legal productivity and will continue to do so. So my second conclusion is that not only that can we see the theoretical benefits of speaking and working in the same lingo as the users, but that we are now actually seeing such benefits starting to be delivered. I think that Legal IT vendors who refuse to embrace such ways of user interaction are surely going to be left behind… though “of course”, we all think, “there’s no way that’ll I’ll get left behind, it’ll never happen to me”…

You know, I’m really glad I understand all of this; I think I’m going to have a great future ahead of me with this stuff. And in case you’re wondering what I’m referring to in the last paragraph, it is of course to Automated Insight (AI) systems, or Assistive Interpretation (AI) systems … there’s absolutely no way I will ever call it what all the other people, particularly marketing departments, are calling it, because they’re all technically and factually incorrect. In fact until it’s referred to correctly then I refuse to work with it, or clients, or change any of my work, ever. Oh, and while I’m at it, you’re reading this from a Web Page on the World Wide Web across the Internet… you morons! … Oh yes, I’ve a great future.

3 replies on “Something for the #Legalit Weekend: Speeka da lingo? asks Andy Stokes”

Ah, Spring, when the cri de coeur of the curmudgeon is heard throughout the land!

It is obviously a pleasure to be pedantic and to feel superior to the non-cognoscenti; but form should follow function, so being picky about usage should be limited to contexts in which proper usage might make a difference.

In the more traditional realms of pedantry, for example, being precious about splitting infinitives never makes any sense: the ‘rule’ was an arbitrary invention based on the fact that Latin infinitives could not be split; and in any event there are contexts where the meaning is clearer with the adverb in the middle. The less/fewer distinction can be a lot of fun; but as painful as it might be to hear someone say that they have less ideas (as opposed, for example, to less idea), you still know exactly what they are trying to say. As a lawyer, the oral/verbal conflation still does bother me: if a client says that the contract was only verbal, you still should ask them whether it was reduced to writing (which isn’t as important legally as many people thing, despite its evidentiary utility, but is still worth knowing).

So Andy should always be asking himself whether the ‘misuse’ (in his eyes) of technical terminology actually makes any practical difference. In general terms, if the words are misused by laymen, it usually will make no difference at all; and if it could make a difference, Andy can always ask for further elucidation.

The same principles apply to software: if Excel will perform the desired function in a relatively user-friendly environment, there is no point in being snobbish about it.

Technical precision is not an end in itself. It is only a means to an end, and then only in particular contexts. In other contexts, leave the kids alone.

Hi Tom,

I think you’ll find the lines above… “it is my thinking that’s wrong” and “After all, I actually know perfectly well what they think they mean.” are actually agreeing with you …

Hi Andy

I was of course aware of your attempt to have your cake and eat it! If I were still marketing my services, I too would be fairly chary of offending my potential clientele by mocking their technical linguistic imprecision. (Of course, thirty years ago when I was getting Acculaw off the ground, all I had to do was convince customers that I could speak good legalese, since law firms didn’t have IT departments in those halcyon innocent times.) But I still had the feeling that you still believe that you know what ‘intranet’ does/should mean, no matter how many millions of people use it to mean something else. You start out saying they are annoying and end up saying that they are morons. In fact, they are the people who control the meanings. Humpty Dumpty may have been a bit extreme – ‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’ … ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’ – but 50 million Humptys can’t all be wrong.

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