June 24, 2019
Earlier this month, hundreds of legal professionals gathered in Chicago to attend the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism’s The Future Is Now: Legal Services 2.019 conference. This year’s speakers explored topics including evolving alternative legal landscapes, novel access to justice solutions, legal innovation through technology, blueprints for change and more.
While each talk varied, there was a common thread: how can lawyers embrace legal innovation while upholding the rule of law and their professional responsibility to clients and the legal system?
It’s a fine balance. While technology is changing the legal landscape and driving efficiency, relationships and reputation still matter.
Illinois Supreme Court Justice Mary Jane Theis opened the conference by calling on the profession to reflect on the values that lawyers and the judicial system add to the public. In the court system, she said, it’s the enforcement of rights, transparency and integrity.
These qualities are the backbone of the profession and can’t be replicated or replaced by technology. But how can lawyers leverage legal innovation to better achieve their professional obligation to serve as a competent client representative? Our 2019 The Future Is Now speakers have some ideas.
Embrace the new legal ecosystem
Rapid technological innovation has brought about a period that Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law Professor Dan Rodriguez calls “newlaw.” Newlaw carries different expectations for lawyers, including novel training and skillsets. Lucy Endel Bassli, Deputy General Counsel at Snowflake Computing, agrees, noting that lawyers must become more business savvy, tech-embedded and operationally inclined. And, importantly, they must embrace and leverage those outside of the profession who bring unique skillsets.
While the legal system is notoriously resistant to change, that may be shifting. Law schools are modernizing their curriculum to equip those outside the profession with industry training. Washington University in St. Louis offers a Master’s in Legal Services for those who could benefit from legal training but don’t wish to become a practicing lawyer. Northwestern University’s Master of Science in Law focuses on the intersection of STEM training and law.
In the professional realm, embracing outside experts can mean increased efficiency. Limited license legal technicians and licensed paralegal practitioners are stepping up in Washington and Utah (New Mexico is currently evaluating the option) to practice law in limited areas, like divorce, child custody and family law. This enables lawyers to spend more time on complex casework. Moreover, rather than spending non-billable time staying up to date on the latest tech trends, law firms can hire or collaborate with trained technologists. Lawyers can benefit from their expert advice, while not taking time away from their caseloads.
And what about leveraging legal researchers? Organizations like Harvard Law School’s Access to Justice Lab (“A2J Lab”) are conducting rigorous studies on topics like pretrial release and legal participation. These data could be critical to legal innovation and the delivery of improved services. However, according to the A2J Lab’s April Faith-Slaker, there’s a disconnect between research and practice. The legal profession must do a better job of collaborating with researchers to translate data into meaningful action items.
Relationships and reputation matter
The fundamentals of client development remain unchanged: relationships and reputation. However, the internet has created new ways for lawyers to develop relationships and manage their reputation. Roughly 37% of potential clients search for lawyers online. What do they find?
According to Gyi Tsakalakis, President of AttorneySync, lawyers should use social media to identify chat tools and message boards used by individuals searching for legal services. Once contact has been made, attorneys can use technology to solidify the relationship. For example, platforms like Constant Contact and MailChimp send automated birthday greetings and general reminders to clients, creating touchpoints that lawyers can set and forget. Most importantly, solo and small firms should create and manage a Google My Business Account. The free business profile lets users easily connect with customers across Google Search and Maps.
As more lawyers and clients go digital, the way attorneys store client data can be a great source of vulnerability. As Rich Lee, General Counsel of Civis Analytics, puts it, all lawyers should feel a healthy sense of paranoia about data security. Breaches can destroy client trust and a lawyer’s reputation.
But data security doesn’t have to be difficult or expensive. Multi-factor authentication and long passwords are a first step. Lawyers should have constant alerts for phishing attempts and ensure their operating systems are updated. Is your client data backed up off-site? Is your device tracking and wiping turned on? There are several practical steps attorneys can take (likely with tools they already have) to ensure their reputation for data security is well preserved.
Don’t be resistant to system changes…
In the legal system, as with anything, there’s always room for improvement. For decades, the administration of justice has happened in courthouses. However, for many Americans significant hurdles stand in the way of this method of dispute resolution. Getting to and from the courthouse, childcare while at court and the loss of a workday can be game changers. Add to that confusing courthouse procedures and the shame associated with appearing in court, and many may decide to skip out on the judicial process all together.
But according to MJ Cartwright, CEO of Court Innovations, tens of thousands of Americans who can’t get to court are successfully resolving cases online. The judiciary has an opportunity to work together with online dispute resolution (“ODR”) providers to address the backlog of court cases and enhance the efficiency and efficacy of the judicial system. In fact, data from a Court Innovation survey suggest that almost 40% of people who used ODR in Michigan’s 74th District Court said their cases wouldn’t have been resolved otherwise.
External responsibilities aren’t only impeding court appearances, they’re also impacting those being held in U.S. jails. Whether guilty or innocent, people are 30% more likely to plead guilty to a crime in court just to go home. This is especially true for those who have limited resources to tend to personal matters, like parenting young children, custody concerns, employment issues, etc.
Robin Steinberg, CEO of The Bail Project, advocates for a grassroots effort to reform the two-tiered judicial system and support a more humane alternative to cash bail. Through The Bail Project, Steinberg is helping to fill this gap by providing access to bail funding for those who don’t have adequate resources.
…Or ethical changes
Sure, future-focused court systems have the potential to improve access to justice. But is the legal system doing enough to support its own?
No, according to Carolyn Elefant, Founder and Owner of the Law Offices of Carolyn Elefant PLLC. She argues that outdated regulations aimed at protecting consumers are strangling solo and small firm attorneys. This includes prohibitive advertising rules and regulations that bar solo and small firms from accessing loans and revenue-sharing partnerships. In today’s climate, are these regulations still needed? Potential clients are used to joint ventures in other settings and they may be unlikely to hire a lawyer with few online testimonials. What if solos were subject to the same rating and review processes as other vendors, like LegalZoom?
Solos and small firms aren’t a relic of the past. They’re a vital, independent voice that can be empowered to take outlier cases that advance the rule of law. In addition, they’re important to the diversity of the profession. Many solos and small firms are owned by women. They’re leading in diversity when BigLaw continues to struggle.
As we’ve written before, David Douglass, Managing Partner at Sheppard Mullin in D.C., favors an ethical approach for addressing the law’s diversity problem. Ethics are different than morals. They’re externally imposed and can be codified in the Rules of Professional Conduct. Though initially focused on regulating the commercial practice of law, the Rules are beginning to embrace common law ethical obligations. Douglass recommends amending the Rules to institutionalize promoting the ideals of equality and liberty (or inclusion) as a professional duty. Could this compelling proposal be part of the solution?
In all things, be civil
No matter what changes, tireless advocacy on behalf of clients and the rule of law remains the backbone of the legal profession. With change comes debate, and with debate comes heightened passions. For successful legal innovation, all facets of the profession (and complementary industries) must come together in civil discourse. As Blake Morant, Dean of the George Washington University Law School, says, “persuasion dissipates when incivility dominates.” To succeed, it’s essential that the profession serves as a model for civil advocacy in support of its ideals and those of its clients.
We’ll continue the conversation on legal innovation at The Future Is Now: Legal Services 2.020. Our 5th annual conference will be held in April 2020 in Chicago. Stay tuned for more information early next year.