Darryl Mountain, a fellow member of the ABA eLawyering Task Force, has just published “An Update and Reconsideration of Chrissy Burns’ ‘Online Legal Services-A Revolution that Failed?'” in the European Journal of Law and Technology, Vol. 1, Issue 3, 2010. If you haven’t yet read Chrissy Burns’ article which she published as her PHD Dissertation in 2007 at the University of New South Wales. School of Law, start there first.
Mountain’s article touches on each of Burns’ thesis points, including “the knowledge acquisition bottleneck, combining people and software, combining different technology paradigms, and combining people from different backgrounds.” Mountain’s concludes that in the past several years since Burns’ thesis was published online legal services have continued to develop and grow in use among legal professionals and the public. He mentions the growth of virtual law practice and the use of document assembly and automation by practitioners. He looks at regulatory changes in the UK and Wales as factors that will help to speed along the adoption of online legal knowledge tools that will combine computer systems with the human component, not just legal professionals, but the shared efforts of innovators in multiple fields.
Of virtual law practice specifically, Mountain writes:
Virtual law practice is an emerging application where a handoff between humans and machines also works well. Virtual law practice is ‘a professional law practice that exists securely online, is accessible to the legal professional and his or her clients, and provides an environment where the client can purchase and access legal services securely online.’ Virtual lawyering creates a system that combines the strengths of traditional lawyering and online legal knowledge products. A software-generated questionnaire with built-in checklists takes care of logical intricacy. It doesn’t forget to ask questions like ‘Are you an American citizen?’ and ‘Do you have a marriage agreement?’
Meanwhile, the lawyer takes a big picture approach to the fact situation and can verify whether there are any legal issues that were missed by the decision tree. For example, it takes a lawyer asking open-ended questions to discover that the testator will, in fact, be moving permanently outside the jurisdiction next month. This is an important reminder that there are limits to what technology can achieve, at least at its current state of development. The best solutions are often those that combine people and software, whether the people are lawyers, paralegals, or outsourced personnel.
Exactly; a harmony of the professional’s skills with the clean processes of the technology. It’s more of an evolution in practice management than an overnight revolution anyway. I think the real move forward in the creation and dissemination of disruptive technologies in law practice is sometimes getting the naysayers over their mental hump. We have to get rid of unfounded fears of technology completely replacing the attorneys or the paralegals and get over fears of how it will “depersonalize” and further “commoditize” the practice the law. Such dramatic changes are unnecessary and unlikely and when preached publicly do a great disservice to future innovators as well as those of us who are currently using technology to deliver legal services.
Having personally co-founded a legal services tech software company, I can’t tell you how many times our ideas were shot down by the most unfounded fears about technology changing the practice of law. The implementation of legal services technology will take a meandering path until it finds the appropriate balance that is beneficial both economically and socially. In the meantime, it’s great to read the level-headed writing of pioneers like Mountain to keep the momentum moving forward on a positive note.
Jason Mark Anderman
I think your point as to the meandering path technology adoption will take in the legal industry is quite apt. I was recently interviewing a prominent in-house attorney who remarked that the state of legal services is very much like the state of consulting and IT services 20 years ago, but the tremendous pressure to strategically source services combined with the greater emphasis on metrics to predict and determine value will eventually hit a tipping point requiring widespread improvements in legal productivity. At that point, one would think that we will see much greater interest in efficient technology adoption. Interestingly, I’m wondering if we will see a grass roots change in legal services, where the 600,000 or so small firm attorneys who are increasingly billing clients on a flat fee basis turn to technology to enhance productivity so they can increase their flat fee profit margins. Regardless, I think we need widely accepted metrics and benchmarking data focused on assessing what constitutes affordable quality in legal services.