Renovating the Law: Reality v. Wish List

[This article originally appeared on Law Technology News, February 24, 2014]

Talk of change in the legal profession is a hot topic. The back-to-back conferences this month in New York—LegalTech New York, LexRedux and ReInvent Law—all addressed particular perspectives of where the future lies.

One of the most obvious sentiments—which can be picked up from social media streams on hashtags like #Reinventlaw or #Altlaw—is the “us vs. them” environment in which these discussions happen. The scoffing of the practicing bar. The cheers when a speaker slams the tech-resistant. It reminds me of a technology vendor or service provider trying to make a sale: It’s not so much that the other side is bad, but that they can’t offer what we have.

That’s a challenge when you’re talking about remaking a profession or even defining it. These discussions can often assume a prototypical lawyer—ink stains on cuffs, bent over a rolltop desk, for example—and flip around words like Luddite or other pejoratives to show how backward the world is and why change is needed.

It’s also a challenge when the people who are currently doing the work point out that, in some cases, the emperor has no clothes. Bloggers like Scott Greenfield and the Fishtown Lawyers Leo and Jordan write engagingly about practice as it is. Their focus is often one that finds that the future-seeking ideas, up in the clouds, lack the legs to work in practice. Like most legal professionals, borne out in the American Bar Association’s technology surveys, they are making choices about how to practice and serve clients and sometimes technology isn’t the right choice.

Change is messy. Technology is an easier answer than remaking the rules that create the bounds within which the legal profession works. Lawyers can move to the cloud individually largely without regulatory interference, where remaking themselves as an alternative business structure or multidisciplinary practice requires a group effort.

The benefit the people thinking up the change bring is to highlight the aspirations of what might be: better tools for self-represented parties, broader definitions of who can practice law, and how they can do it. The failure of the cogs of aspiration and reality to mesh is why the discussions seem to revolve around the breathless and the mundane and not practical ways forward.

One example was an excellent presentation given by a ReInvent Law participant, Andy Ninh. He imagined a world through Google Glass, where the practitioner is able to work more effectively in and out of court with a technology that moves computing to our glass frames. It was ably done.

But I wasn’t able to suspend my disbelief. Anyone familiar with courts, especially out of metropolitan areas, is aware of the lack of network connectivity and, in rural areas, of weak wireless coverage. Courts are notoriously underfunded when it comes to their technological infrastructure, so it may be that some changes will happen, like they do now, on only one side of the conversation. And where was the client?

The ReInvent Law sessions and the LegalTech vendors’ products were often not geared so much to how legal professionals practice but how they could or should, if they practiced in a large metropolitan area, with the resources of a large law firm but not the constraints. Things didn’t always align.

Change is not a single path. And the legal profession isn’t all one thing. Bringing change to a group largely made up of solo and small-firm practitioners will need a variety of paths that create bridges to the future state. The continuous idea generation of both those inside and outside the legal profession can’t hurt but, just like with a product, there is credibility in moving from vaporware to alpha.

The possibilities raised by the legal hacker groups in Seattle and the District of Columbia, where practitioners and others mix and focus on both technology and nontechnology ideas, are examples of that bridging. Groups like CALI and their A2J efforts are also out there, applying their lab work to real-world situations, for law students, the self-represented, as well as the profession. There’s real, practical work going on where the cogs meet.

David Whelan is manager of legal information for the Law Society of Upper Canada.  Twitter:  @davidpwhelan.

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