The program, which [project leader Anmol] Madan said is nearing completion, uses mathematical algorithms to measure levels of stress and empathy in a person's voice. It also keeps track of how often someone is speaking.
"It's an academically proven thing," Madan said of the math behind those measurements. "There are a bunch of academic papers published about this."
For now, the Jerk-O-Meter is set up to monitor the user's end of the conversation. If his attention is straying, a message pops up on the phone that warns, "Don't be a jerk!" or "Be a little nicer now." A score closer to 100 percent would prompt, "Wow, you're a smooth talker."
However, the Jerk-O-Meter also could be set up to test the voice on the other end of the line. Then it could send the tester such reports as: "This person is acting like a jerk. Do you want to hang up?"
It's just a nascent technology, but it seems we're reaching a tipping point where lawyers' generally-repellent inter-personal communications skills can be objectively-measured across many media. Caller-side mobile phone conversations are the start; from here, it's both ends of mobile and landline calls, then realtime and recorded conversations. Analysis of written communications and e-mail is already possible, but is more content-based (and thus has more potential for improper intrusion upon privilege); still, the technology exists and could easily be indexed against the scales and factors used in this "Jerk-o-Meter" and related research.
Once something can be measured, it can be controlled, and professional and judicial willingness to control lawyer conduct and civility already exists, albeit only currently as wishy-washy professional standards and judicial guidelines. What's the line between zealousness and abusiveness? It's always been gray, but the dynamic may take on a new character once abusiveness can be objectively and reliably measured and recorded. Perhaps lawyers will adjust by relying more heavily on formal written communications and carefully-scripted personal ones.
Off-the-cuff, no-holds-barred phone calls and conferences may soon be a rarity for attorneys. That's not necessarily a bad thing. Fewer phone calls, more structured meetings, and more asynchronous written communications appeal to me personally. I'll lead the way by unplugging my phone right now!
UPDATE: Attorney-blogger Pejman Yousefzadeh has also noted the Jerk-o-Meter and is concerned that he might have to start feigning interest on a few calls.
UPDATE 2: An error in the placement of the editorial clarification in the article excerpt was corrected.