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"Sully": A Modern Legal Tech Metaphor

by Larry Bridgesmith, JD | CEO of Legal Alignment

It was one of those iconic moments. We may even remember where we where when we saw the improbable images of US Air flight 1549 floating in the frigid waters of the Hudson River on the west side of Manhattan on January 15, 2009. No less than 155 passengers and crew members stood on the wings and in flotation devices as New York City emergency responders and ferry captains converged on the scene within 23 minutes to rescue everyone with minimal injuries and no deaths.

The last person off the plane was Chelsey (Sully) Sullenberger, US Air Captain and reluctant hero of the Miracle on the Hudson. He had insured that every "soul" was off the plane as the 35 degree water seeped up the fuselage toward the forward exits before he abandoned ship, remembering to don his uniform jacket and recover his flight logs as he left.

Sully was instantly greeted with public adoration and well deserved praise for his courage and heroics. He accomplished an unprecedented water landing of a commercial passenger plane which had lost both its engines due to bird strikes immediately on departing Laguardia airport just seven miles to the East. In scarce seconds after total engine failure, Sully considered his options, consulted with ground control and determined that returning to Laguardia or diverting to nearby airports in Newark or Teterboro was not possible. With no engine thrust and a rapidly descending flight trajectory, Sully did the mental calculations and disregarded the established flight protocol which would have required him to return to Laguardia.

After 40 years of flight, including near calamities in military fighter jets and safely conveying over 1 million passengers to their intended destination without incident, Sully's "gut" took over and 155 lives were saved. Despite the countless hours of flight simulation training pilots must undergo, no one had ever programmed a simulation for a disaster like this one. No pilot had ever practiced a water landing with both engines disabled in an Airbus A20 weighing 72 tons at takeoff.

Despite the public and media adoration, the National Transportation Safety Board had a more serious responsibility to investigate and determine if human or mechanical error contributed to this near disaster and how it should have been avoided. "Sully" the movie tells the story of the behind the scenes and after the fact investigation of the now famous "miracle".

The NTSB was not as charitable. Because protocols had been disregarded, Sully was presumed guilty until he could prove himself innocent. In fact, the computers and technological simulations stood in stark contrast to Sully's "gut". All the evidence supported that Sully should have returned to Laguardia and could have landed to safely deliver his passengers back to the terminal without risking drowning or hypothermia.

As weeks and then months of investigative hell followed, the evidence continued to build that Sully had misjudged the circumstances and exposed his passengers to unnecessary harm. Sully replayed every option in his mind and in his nightmares coming to the same conclusion despite the evidence and the numerous computer simulations: He had executed the one and only maneuver which would save lives.

Finally, after insisting on a real time flight simulation with experienced pilots flying the A20 under the precise conditions of flight 1549, Sully re-lived the trauma of those 208 seconds. In the presence of the NTSB investigative panel and scores of investigators and experts, the flight simulations were projected live to a capacity room on giant screens and repeated by two separate flight crews. The result? Both crews were able to safely return to Laguardia or Teterboro without incident. Sully was no hero, but an arrogant fool.

Before the cockpit recording had been replayed, Sully insisted that the flight simulators had been programmed incorrectly. Following the prescribed protocol might have worked only if no time had elapsed between the engine failures and the plane being diverted to Laguardia. Sully insisted that reality is different than theory. Human thought processes are not instantaneous, but require cognitive effort which takes some amount of time.

Again, in real time, the flight simulations were recreated with a 38 second delay between the time pilots would be aware of twin engine failure, communicate with ground control, assess the circumstances, prescribed protocols and decide on a course of action.

When reality was programmed into the simulations, a very different result occurred. Neither experienced pilot crew at the controls of the A20 simulator could return safely to LaGuardia or Peterboro. In both cases, flight disaster would have occurred with the inevitable loss of life.

When the cockpit recording was then replayed, Sully's gut and memory proved to be both accurate and heroic.

However, in Sully's words, "We were all just doing our jobs."

Therein lies the legal technology metaphor. Great, even heroic outcomes can occur when we "all just do our jobs".

Sully could not have flown the A20 without technology. It won't fly without advanced avionics. The A20 cannot fly itself. It must have a skilled pilot.

Lawyers are the fighter and commercial pilots of the legal landscape. They cannot do their job without technology. Technology cannot do the work of lawyers without skilled legal professionals.

As legal tech continues to evolve and improve, lawyers must let technology do its job so lawyers can practice more and better law at less cost and in less time.

These are not contradictory, but complementary functions.

We depend on the experienced professional "guts" of pilots like Sully and the avionics which keep us all aloft.

The heroic lawyers are those that are just doing their job better, faster and cheaper with the assistance of increasingly capable technology.

I doubt that any of us would choose to fly with Wilbur and Orville Wright relying on the technology of the era of Kitty Hawk.

Nor will we be well served by technologically impaired lawyers.

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