The Online Legal Query Service

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The Online Legal Query Service

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Chat programs were the rage when I started my legal career in 1998. I used them a fair bit until about 2010, when it was overtaken by mobile phone messengers. During that period, I used many chat programs, including Internet relay chat (IRC/mIRC), ICQ, Yahoo Messenger, Windows Messenger, Skype and Gtalk, from my desktop.

I was enamoured with them like we tend to be with new technology. The new communication technology felt liberating and empowering. We could seek out our friends to chat with, which was the equivalent of ‘hanging out’ online. Otherwise, we could find strangers to get to know and chat with.

The irony was that we were not chatting in the conventional sense of speaking to each other. We were ‘texting,’ but by then, that was reserved exclusively for those who used the short messaging service (SMS) to send messages pizzicato. During this period, the word ‘chatting’ broadened to accommodate the continuous exchange of text messages. It transitioned to its current primary definition, i.e., a continuous exchange of messages through a messaging application.

Like many who first encountered technology, I embraced it enthusiastically. It was easy to get caught up with the novelty and fun of chatting with my friends and the randomness and surrealness of meeting strangers I would never have met.

At the height of it, it was not uncommon for me and my friends to spend a serious chunk of our working day chatting about life, love, our pitiful sex life, gossip, some obscure or silly legal point or theory, or attempting to improve our online rapport with a name behind which we hoped was a hot lady instead of some guy pretending to be one. I remember once I went into the office, spent the whole day chatting online with my friends and then went home. I didn’t do a flicker of work. I felt incredibly guilty that day and never did it again. After dinner, we would get back online to chat or find someone else to chat with.

It was addictive and exhilarating. The technology was fresh. Using it made us feel as if we were on the cutting edge. I felt closely and immediately connected with my friends. The convenience and experiences were unique. I made a handful of lasting online friends from that experience. Even though we have known each other for a long time, we only meet every few years.

Looking back, I am amazed at how my friends and I got any work done, given how much we chatted throughout the day. After a year or so, we acclimatised to the technology, and it lost its novelty and addictiveness.

I am pleased to report that it was not all wasteful, speculative and hopeful chats during that period.

Since many of my lawyer (and non-lawyers) friends were online and were all on each other’s contact list, part of my chat time was spent on the law. I would either engage in long, meandering, meditative legal discussions or respond to legal queries I was posed. The former was occasional. The latter, however, reached a stage and a peak such that I jokingly responded to anyone’s hello to me with a ‘Hi, welcome to the Online Legal Query Service. How can I help you today?’ It reached that stage because I was earnestly answering almost every legal query that was posed to me.

And the more you give, the more you get.

It was not that I could answer all the questions. I knew the answers to some. But for most of them, I hadn’t encountered the question before and didn’t know the answers. In those cases, I earnestly researched the issue. Only after satisfying myself that I could respond did I give them my answer. If it could wait, I would look into it after I completed whatever I was working on. But I was often too curious and impatient and would stop whatever I was working on to look into it. It disrupted my work, but I framed it as a welcome educational break.

I did that for my friends and for others, only if the issue piqued my curiousity.

I did that for two reasons.

First, I liked being helpful to my friends and those I like. One way to be helpful is to be knowledgeable. To know things, to experience things, all kinds of things, things they didn’t know. When we know, we can share that glow, facilitate the flow, and help others grow. Many good words rhyme with know, nei chi mo? (Sorry, I could not resist that inter-lingual pun). Knowledge is power. I want to share that power with my circle to empower them.

Second, I like learning things and educating myself. Taking on questions I didn’t know the answer to was one way to educate myself about things I didn’t know about. My generalist outlook informed this approach.

Those questions lead me to areas I may never pass, experience or think about. It didn’t matter whether the area of law was immediately helpful to me – I answered the question posed as best I could because I appreciated how each question answered broadened my general field of knowledge. I was confident that whatever I learned would be helpful to either myself or someone else in the future.

Sometimes, some of the questions were born out of sheer laziness. My friend or the person asking was too lazy to flip the page open and read. If I knew the answer, I would chastise them for laziness before giving it to them. If I didn’t, I would look it up.

It was a win-win because after I knew and informed my friend, both of us were enlightened. This contributed to my esoteric, disparate, and marginal legal knowledge collection.

I later realised the benefits or advantages of answering other people’s questions.

First, it gave insight into what others were interested in, what questions perplexed them, what information eluded their grasp, and what they were lazy about looking up for themselves. The questions helped identify my knowledge’s limits and allowed me to extend them if I was so inclined.

Second, it improved my ability to research and find stuff. The more we research and study, the more we improve this ability, which leads to quicker and sounder discoveries. In time, we will learn alternative techniques, starting points, or ways to discover information.

Third, if we respond to queries correctly and accurately often enough, cultivating a reputation for being knowledgeable and helpful comes as a matter of course. This reputation is beneficial because people want to deal with a competent and helpful lawyer instead of one reputed to be ignorant and, therefore, useless. The more we correctly respond, the more widespread that impression becomes.

Fourth, although I mentioned earlier that we would discover legal knowledge or areas that we otherwise would not know, another consequence is that what we discover can improve, recalibrate, or force us to revise what we know. It expands our pool of knowledge to draw from and mix with. Also, it may be an ornament of knowledge now but later prove to be pivotal, if not decisive, for a matter in the future.

I eventually became discerning about the queries I responded to because the more senior I became, the more my responsibilities grew in the firm, leaving less time for me to mess about online and undertake gratuitous research. It closed down altogether once I left those messaging platforms.

Despite discontinuing my online legal query service, that precise service has become ubiquitous with large-language model service applications such as ChatGPT and a slew of ‘AI-legal services’ that run quicker and go far beyond what I could ever offer through a chat application program.

A question arising from these advancing technological developments is how much of our work as lawyers will be eventually taken over by these ‘intelligent’ software and processes, what will be left for us to do, and whether it will be worth doing.

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